It’s a time of my life I don’t often revisit, because for so long I felt defined by my illness and I don’t want to be that person any more. But recently I’ve come to know some lovely ladies who are in the throes of this horrible condition and I realise how lucky I am to have recovered. And I remember how in order to recover I had to learn some lessons the hard way. So I thought I’d share them in the hope that they either help someone get better or prevent someone getting sick.
When I was first diagnosed with Post Viral Fatigue back in January 2007, I had no idea what it meant. I knew I’d never felt so utterly drained of energy before, but I assumed that I’d be back at work after a few days rest. The first doctor I saw spotted someone who expected to bounce back in a couple of days, and signed me off for a week. By my third visit they were signing me off for a fortnight, and after that it was for a month at a time. I was gobsmacked. My body just didn’t work and I had no idea what to do about it. I’m a fixer. I come from a family of fixers. If something doesn’t work, you find a solution, you take action, and fix it. Except that all the doctors were telling me to leave it alone, rest, do nothing. So I crawled into the office of an amazing homeopath, who thankfully didn’t betray in that first meeting how ill she thought I was. Later she told me she didn’t know how I’d managed to get there. Taxi, if you must know, and it took me days to get over the outing. She started to get my body working again. And helped along by a kind yogi, a cheerful acupuncturist, and a very down-to-earth nutritionist, I was well enough to start work after six and a half months. It took a lot longer before I was fully recovered, but then you don’t always learn the lessons you need to learn the first time around, do you?
Lesson One: Most of what I think I ‘have to’ do is bullshit
I used to run around trying to do a million things and please a million people at once. I was proud of my balls in the air, juggling this and that and the next thing. When I was very ill, I had two rules: I had to be out of bed and dressed by lunchtime; and I had to do one thing. Shop for food, make the tea, make a phone call (difficult because often I’d forget the next word in the sentence I was speaking), go to the doctor, whatever. However small, one thing. And the sky didn’t fall in. We had a cleaner once a week and that was the extent our house got cleaned: the sky didn’t fall in. So now, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I look at my list and ask myself this question for every item: if I don’t do that, will the sky fall in? If the answer is ‘no, it won’t’ I score it off. Or carry it forward for another, less stressful day.
Lesson Two: People like to help
Who knew?! People, generally, like to feel useful and help you when you need it. They don’t say ‘oh my god, you’re so weak and useless, I can’t be your friend anymore’. They say things like ‘do you want me to come and fetch you’ and ‘I’m going to the shops, do you need anything’. It turns out that people are most happy to help you when they’re doing the thing you want help with anyway. I couldn’t drive for the first few months, so my mum would come and take me to the supermarket: she was going anyway, so it was no bother to take me too. And I didn’t even ask her to carry the bags upstairs: I’d leave them for the husband to bring up when he got home from work 😉
Lesson Three: A Caveat to Lesson Two
Some people are possessed of untold resources of kindness and understanding. Others aren’t. Work out who’s who and avoid the ones who aren’t: they’ll suck you dry of any energy you’re lucky enough to have.
Lesson Four: Chronic illness is a confidence killer
As a mostly confident person, it shocked me how quickly I lost my self-confidence. I think it was partly because I was on my own most of the time. Socialising was tricky because I’d tire so quickly and I had nothing to contribute: who wants to hear that it took me forty minutes to walk up the hill from the shops the other day? And of course there’s the fact that my self image was mired in bullshit. My identity was tied up in a job I wasn’t doing and a city I didn’t live in. I was a work-hard-play-hard, life-and-soul-of-the-party kind of girl. Fun loving, high energy and smart. Except now I’d ground to a halt and didn’t know who I was anymore. I do now, but for a long time I made some crazy decisions because I didn’t. And for a long time I didn’t raise my head above the parapet, didn’t voice an opinion and didn’t stand up for myself. If I ever get ill for more than a week again, I’m going to make a picture of all my achievements and print out every testimonial and every compliment I’ve received. I’m going to write about who I am and what I love about myself. And I’m going to look at it all every day to remind myself how awesome I am.
Lesson Five: Forcing a square peg into a round hole takes up WAY to much energy!
I fell into banking for want of something more suited to my talents. And I should have left many years ago, if not straight away. I knew it wasn’t a great fit, but I persevered: one of my best attributes is tenacity 🙂 So going back to a job and workplace that wasn’t a great fit with minimal amounts of energy, was never going to be conducive to a quick recovery. Especially in the last year I was there when the powers that be were saying one thing and doing another. When I’d use up all my energy just putting a positive foot forward. Being positive when you’re compromising your values just by stepping through the door, takes a lot of effort. And the solution? See Lesson Six.
Lesson Six: Follow your heart
On the many nights I was awake at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning (do you know that you need a certain amount of energy to sleep?) I would read. I started off with fiction, but after a while switched to self-help type books to try and find a solution to my plight. One of those books was called ‘Follow Your Heart’ by Andrew Matthews. I don’t even remember how I ended up with it. Maybe I had one of his other books and liked it, I can’t remember. But I loved this one. And it was the start of me believing that there was something else out there for me, I just had to figure out what. That in itself had been a journey filled with twists and turns and frustrations and there will be further iterations no doubt. But I don’t regret a single bit of it. And I finally got better when I started following my heart. In fact, as I look around me, I think that following your heart, in however small a way, is the best safeguard for your health that I’ve found yet.
Lesson Seven: Some effects linger long after recovery
Something I wasn’t prepared for was the resentment. It didn’t come while I was sick, it waited until I was well. I didn’t recognise it at first. I knew I felt frustrated and angry and anxious, but it took my miracle-worker homeopath to use her intuition and give it a name. I resented the time I had lost to being ill, the friends my husband had made while I lay helpless at home, the events I’d missed: so many memories that wouldn’t be mine. I missed my baby sister’s hen weekend, and most of her wedding reception, something that can still reduce me to tears thinking about it today. So many celebrations I should have been part of, so many memories I’d been deprived of. I resented how my confidence and identity had been stripped from me. I resented that I’d been brought to the brink of hopelessness and to losing my sunny, positive, optimistic nature. But when you give something a name, you strip it of it’s power. I have so many things to be grateful for as a result of my illness. I have deeper friendships, a stronger relationship with my darling husband, a greater understanding of human frailty and strength, a more beautiful appreciation of life and nature. Most of all, I got a second chance: a chance to press restart and live a life that makes me happy. I have a puppy because I can stay home all day. I get to write about whatever I want and I get to draw my cartoon sheep. I love that I get to share the adventures of my cartoon sheep. 🙂