Grab the cuppa of your choice and make yourself comfy, this is a long one! But it may also be the most important and passionate thing I've written.
I love Dylan Thomas' poem 'Do Not Go Gentle'. (Click here to go to YouTube to hear the full poem read by the man himself.) I know, I know, it's about death, but actually I think it's about life and how you live it. We all have challenges of one kind or another; do you just resign and submit to the hand you've been dealt? Or do you strive for 'life in all its fullness'? And what does that mean for those who are very severely ill, who are already in a living death?
Another poem I've thought a lot about lately is Invictus:
Invictus is Latin for 'unconquered'. William Ernest Henley wrote the poem after undergoing a leg amputation and while recovering from intensive surgery on his remaining foot. The poem was part of the inspiration for the recent Invictus Games in London; as the website for the Games states, they are "an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women... about survival in the face of adversity and the strength of the human spirit... a celebration of resilience and passion."
I love this concept. I am rarely able to watch TV, and the noise and fast movements of sports are particularly difficult, so I only watched a tiny bit of the Invictus Games, but I saw enough to be moved and inspired. I used to work as a Support Worker for people with long term neurological conditions (ironic, I know), and I have always been passionate about facilitating people with disabilities to find their own ways of living their lives to the fullest they can. I love the incredible opportunities that are out there these days for people with disabilities. Like the Paralympic Games, the Invictus Games and the two poems mentioned above all fan the flames of my passion for life and for fighting against adversity. It's beautiful stuff. And also a bit troubling.
I look at those athletes with disabilities, and I find myself inspired, moved, and troubled, because, if I'm honest, I'm a teensy bit jealous of them.
I have huge admiration and respect for them, and nothing in this post is meant to diminish their incredible achievements or disregard/make light of their deep suffering. I know many of them have been through huge trauma and pain, all of them have faced overwhelming challenges, and I know that - on the face of it - their disabilities are far more severe than mine. My body is not outwardly scarred by my illness; I can see, I can hear, and I have all my limbs. But I can't do a tiny fraction of the things they can do. Many days the toilet is as far as I can get. It has always been my ambition to run the London Marathon, but now I am not even able to watch it on TV. Does that mean that I have any less willpower, strength, or determination than athletes with disabilities? Of course not! It just means our situations are different and we are each doing the best we can with the hand we've been dealt. To put it somewhat crudely, people with disabilities can be split into those who are 'fit disabled', and those who are 'sick disabled'.
Society isn't great at accepting people with disabilities. People don't like to be reminded of the frailty of the human body or see anything that doesn't match up to today's false and unattainable standards of beauty and success. All people with disabilities have had to deal with discrimination, ignorance, and prejudice of some form or another. However, things are improving, and events like the Invictus and Paralympic Games have definitely helped to show people with disabilities in a positive, inspiring way. But what about those in the 'sick disabled' group?
Society is rightly inspired by athletes and others with disabilities who achieve great, heroic deeds in a blaze of publicity (how amazing is this guy?!: Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham -- The Story: http://youtu.be/U2D6Iy7m7qI), but I think we should be just as inspired - maybe more so - by the very severely sick people who struggle on behind closed doors each day, who don't give up the fight, whose spirits - though wounded - are unbroken. For many, just continuing to breathe is a harder feat than climbing the highest mountain - and they do it hour after hour, day after day. That is strength, that is determination, that is resilience. That is inspiring.
Being an athlete, whether you have a disability or not, requires great sacrifice and incurs significant physical pain. But athletes choose that lifestyle, and they can choose to stop; they can choose whether or not to train that day, they can choose to cut a training session short if the suffering of their body becomes too much, and they can choose whether or not to continue with their athletic career. People with illness did not choose to be ill, and they cannot choose to stop being ill. All they can do is fight the illness by doing all they can to maximise their health. People with ME, especially those with very severe ME, fight at least as hard as athletes, but their achievements are measured on a totally different scale, and there are no medals hanging round their necks. But just because their achievements are measured in millimetres rather than miles doesn't make them any less noteworthy; perhaps the opposite.
So, to get back to where I started this post, how do people with severe chronic illnesses fight? How do we 'rage against the dying of the light'? How do we strive for life in all its fullness, become the masters of our fate, and keep our souls unbroken, unconquered? Because triumph over adversity doesn't mean that the adversity goes away. Maybe the phrase should be triumph IN adversity.
Pre-ME, I didn't exactly have a clean bill of health. Complex gynae problems caused all sorts of issues, including extremely severe chronic pain. (See the first few paragraphs of this post if you want a bit more detail.) Things were very tough going there for a while. The only way I could mentally and emotionally cope with the pain was to pretend it wasn't there and just 'push through' it. I became a pretty good actress, and even those closest to me could often not tell when the pain was getting worse.
'Pushing through' became an ingrained coping strategy. People have told me how inspiring I was to them, how much they admired my fighting spirit and my ability to keep going - and that's lovely, but it wasn't a natural or even necessarily healthy way to be. Pain and other physical symptoms are there for a reason; they are the body's signals that something is wrong and we need to do something about it, and ignoring those signals is tantamount to self-neglect. But I was striving to make the most of my situation, and I didn't know how else to do it.
And I must admit, that striving did serve me well; after being finally told by the local surgeons that there was nothing more they could do for me, I decided to take control of my own health care. I did a load of internet research, which led me to a national specialist surgeon; long story short, he operated on me and gave me my life back AND made it possible for me to have a child. So I don't for one second regret my refusal to give up on life, but the 'pushing through' aspect of this coping strategy had become an automatic part of me, to the extreme that, some years later, I refused to believe there was anything more than a bit of bruising wrong with my ankle, when in fact I'd actually broken it. That's not admirable or inspiring, that's just stupid. I didn't learn my lesson, though.
When I got ME in 2011, before I was diagnosed in 2013, this 'push through' mentality came straight back to the fore. I ignored pain, numbness, dizziness, balance problems, muscle spasms, increasing cognitive impairment, and more, compounded by the fact that when I did eventually tell my doctor what was happening they refused to take it seriously. So I kept going to work and I forced myself to exercise despite tears of pain and frustration. I didn't tell even my closest friends and family how bad things really were - in some cases, I hid the fact that there was anything wrong at all - even when I had to give up work in 2012. I even set up a business from home, and ran myself ragged trying to help friends. I had no idea how dangerous all this was, because I didn't know I had ME or what that meant; I didn't understand why my health was getting worse and worse, despite healthy eating and exercise and trying to think positively and giving up work and everything else I tried. I thought I was looking after myself and trying to improve my health, but I was forgetting the most important thing: to listen to what your body is telling you.
The fact is, that no amount of exercise, positive thinking, ignoring symptoms and pushing through will help someone with ME; quite the opposite. Any amount of overexertion is dangerous and *will* cause a worsening of the condition, no matter how much you want to believe otherwise. I guess it's not so surprising that I've gone from mild/moderate ME to severe in just a couple of years. If I had listened to my body, and if the doctors had listened to me and given me appropriate advice, it's quite likely that my ME would now be far less severe than it is.
Once I was diagnosed with ME in 2013 and learnt more about the disease, I realised that I had to unlearn all those old 'push through, ignore the pain' coping strategies that were doing me so much damage, and learn to listen to and respect my body. Well, once I'd understood that, that was fine; I took myself to task and did the difficult work of changing my unhelpful thinking patterns, and was rewarded with a greater level of stability in my health. By August/September 2013, I realised that I was having less health 'crashes', and some symptoms had actually improved. Other events later caused me to become much worse, but that's a whole other story! The point is, you can do everything else perfectly, but if you keep 'pushing through' and don't listen to your body, ME *will* get worse.
Accepting all this vitally important stuff, though, is not without its dilemmas. If I couldn't 'push through', how could I 'rage against the dying of the light'? How could I fight?
I guess it all comes down to this:
This has a positive knock-on effect on your mental state, or at least it does for me; learning to see joy and beauty and meaning in the little stuff, stuff that other people don't even notice, opens us up to a world of amazing things. Those things were there all along for everyone to see, but life gets in the way and we just don't appreciate them; it is joyful to re-learn a child-like excitement for life and the world. It is nearly six months since I last went downstairs, and even longer since I went outside; imagine how incredible it will be when I can look at the sky again, smell the air, and feel the wind on my face. I am SO looking forward to that, but if I wasn't currently confined, if I'd been seeing the sky every day, I would have no idea of how treasured that experience should be.
I'm not saying this stuff is easy to learn or to put into practice, and I'm by no means an expert. It was actually my Mum who brought the Invictus poem to my attention; she said she thinks it embodies the spirit that keeps me going. This really blessed and encouraged me, but I think it's overstating things somewhat and I definitely can't say that I am "unafraid" or that "I have not winced nor cried aloud" (although I'm not so sure that's a bad thing; I am still human, there's no shame in admitting that life is tough, and not giving vent to inevitable feelings of pain, grief, anger etc will only cause them to fester).
It's extremely tough to keep an appropriate kind of fighting attitude going in the face of the world's disapproval and their judgement that we are 'giving in'. The media, and therefore the public, have been hugely influenced by certain psychiatrists who, for their own vested interests, claim against all medical evidence that ME is mere fatigue caused by deconditioning and fear of activity. So the public see people with ME as lazy, demotivated, and just not trying hard enough. And, to be fair, ME is a tough disease to understand, and if you haven't lived with it it's hard to understand the depth of suffering or how exertion can be so damaging. So well-meaning people frequently try to encourage and challenge me to do more than I know is safe, and I can tell they think I'm giving in to the illness. It's tough to maintain your resolve in the face of such attitudes.
What it is perhaps impossible for many to understand is that, by stopping myself from doing things that I could perhaps sometimes manage by overexerting myself, I am not giving up or giving in to the illness; in fact, *this is my way of fighting*. It's my way of keeping as stable as I can so that I can still enjoy as much quality time with my husband and daughter as possible, rather than always being too sick to have them in the room. It's my way of retaining some capacity for laughter, joy, and the appreciation of beauty, rather than being blinded and depressed by overwhelming pain and other symptoms that may not have been so all-consuming had I been more sensible. It's my way of doing what I can to reduce the likelihood of the disease progressing. Ultimately, it's my way of trying to keep myself as well as possible so that our daughter may be able to keep living with us - and there's not much in this world that is more important to me than that. This is my way of 'not going gently into the night'.
Everyone is different. We all have different needs, interests, family circumstances, priorities, and passions. We find beauty and meaning in different things, and have different things that keep us going. And in the ME world, there is a vast range of severity levels, which will obviously impact the way in which someone fights and the choices they have to make. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to have so much joy and beauty in my life; people with very severe ME are much, much more limited, but not through lack of fighting spirit or love for life. We need to be careful not to judge or criticise someone else's way of fighting; we're all different and have different needs, interests and priorities.
To all the ME warriors out there, especially the very severe, and including their carers: I salute you. You triumph daily at your own personal Invictus Games. Your endurance, fighting spirit, and perseverance are incredible. If I could give you each a thousand medals I would, and you would deserve every single one. (See my next blog post: Triumph In Adversity Awards.) You rage against the dying of the light each day and strive to live life as fully as you can; you are a huge inspiration to me. Thank you.
Eeeek, sorry this is such a long post. But one last thing, for those who are interested: there are many things that keep me fighting and living life in the fullest way I can, from looking at photos of family, friends, nature, and funny cartoons; to spending time with my husband and daughter; connecting with friends online; giving and receiving friendship, support and coping strategies; and writing this blog. These things help me to feel alive and keep me going. But the one thing above all others that keeps me going is my faith in God. He is my comfort, my strength, my hope, my anchor. In case they will help anyone else, I've posted below a few of the many Bible verses and worship songs that have encouraged and inspired me through some very tough times.
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified... for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you."
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
'In Christ Alone'
But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
'Great is Thy Faithfulness'
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord , “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
(I love that line, "I might just bend but I won't break as long as I can see Your face" - powerful)
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. ... the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. ... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. ... The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord , the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
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