If you’re struggling to stay positive at the moment then you’re not on your own. I’m finding it very hard indeed and seem to fluctuate between near panic and a kind of stoic ‘everything will be fine’. When I feel panicky I’m trying to remember the things I learned when I was very seriously ill eight years ago. I’ve written this post not because I think I’ve got all of the answers but because I think it’s important that we talk about these things and share our experiences. I’m definitely not suggesting that they’ll work for everyone but if any of them chime with you then trust that instinct and go with it.
Back in 2012 I went into hospital for a minor operation. I was supposed to be in and out in the day, back at work in a week but the operation went wrong which resulted in me needing emergency surgery. I spent over two weeks in hospital and then four months at home recuperating. My life changed forever because of the surgery. A hole was made in my bowel which resulted in me having a stoma for 18 months. Further surgery left me with nerve damage which means I have balance issues and I don’t walk as well as I used to. I’ve got scars on the inside and the outside. But I also learned that I was far stronger than I’d ever thought. One of my friends says I’m like a teabag because you couldn’t tell how strong I was until I was in hot water. I’ve cried an awful lot along the way (and still do sometimes) but these are the things which helped get me through.
- Do things that make you happy
I don’t think I’d really asked myself ‘what makes me happy?’ until I came out of hospital. I was very good at doing what I thought I should do or falling in with other people’s plans so asking myself what I wanted was pretty revolutionary. I discovered that the things that made me happiest were writing, reading, gigs, yoga, films, crocheting and seeing my friends. I couldn’t do yoga but as I got better I made sure I did all of the other things even if it meant doing them on my own. I went to gigs and the cinema on my own because I knew it’d feel better to go solo than not to go at all.
Of course, with so much being cancelled at the moment we all have things we can’t do but if we focus on what we can do, even if we have to do them virtually or online, then that will help. I honestly think it’s better to do something in a different way than not to do it at all.
- Lean on your friends
I always knew I had good friends but I didn’t realise they were totally amazing until I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed without help. Not only did they come to visit but they didn’t flinch when I literally looked like death and they accepted me as I’d become which helped, in time, for me to start to accept that too. Because of social distancing we’re not going to be able to meet for coffee or go out for a drink but that doesn’t mean we can’t be there for each other. Trust me on this, we’re stronger together so lean on each other.
I’ve always been a book lover but it was only when I was in hospital that I realized how much I needed fiction. As I wasn’t expecting a prolonged stay I hadn’t packed sufficient reading material. My memories of the first couple of days post-surgery are pretty hazy due to the morphine but I clearly remember a WRVS volunteer turning up in the ward with a trolley of books and asking me what I liked to read. She gave me Stella Rimmington’s first novel which was exactly the kind of exciting but not too challenging read I needed. In the days that followed I was transported from my hospital bed to all sorts of interesting locations through the books I read. I remember those books really clearly as they made the isolation and monotony of hospital and recovery so much easier to bear.
However, it’s wise to choose books carefully in times of trauma and uncertainty. I’d been reading the Game of Thrones series before I went into hospital and had got to Feast for Crows. I tried to pick it up again when I was recuperating but there was more death and despair in it than I could possibly handle even in a fictional world.
- Small joys
It was when I thought I might not make it through the emergency surgery that I realized that I’d spent too much of my life worrying about things I couldn’t change. I also realized that all of that worrying meant I hadn’t focused on the moment because I was always thinking or worrying or planning for the future. I made a concerted effort when I got out of hospital to notice the things which were good in that moment and be grateful for them. They were small things; drinking a cup of tea outside, an email from a friend, flowers coming into bloom but I relished them which I wouldn’t have done before. I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten this in the intervening years. I’m trying to remind myself to slow down, to savour the moment and be grateful for what’s good in it.
It was only when I couldn’t get outside that I realized how much it mattered to me. I remember the first time I was pushed down to the hospital foyer in a wheelchair and sat by an open door; just feeling the breeze on my skin, seeing the sunshine on the paving slabs made a massive difference after two weeks in the ward. I know many people will be confined inside because they’re self-isolating so this is what I figured out. Sit by the window and really watch what’s going on. I could only see the car park from the window in the ward but there was a row of trees at the back of it and I watched those trees every day. I can still remember how they danced in the breeze, how the wind flipped the leaves to reveal a paler underside.
I also looked at photos of favourite places (largely Orkney and Glastonbury) on my mobile. It’s not the same as being outside but it’s something and it helps.
- Take support where it’s offered
When I came out of hospital I could barely make it upstairs. I had to let people help me and I realized that not only were people happy to do that but that it was okay to take whatever support was offered. Some friends pushed me round the shops in a wheelchair, others listened when I was upset and overwhelmed. No one could do it all but together they gave me the support I needed to come out of the other side. So if you need help, ask for it. People will be there.
I hope some of this helps a little during these very challenging times. It’s helped me to write them down. If you’ve got thoughts or experiences or wisdom you’d like to share then please leave a comment below or message me. We can all help each other and that’s what will make the difference. As I’ve said we’re stronger together and I really believe that helping each other will get us through these terrible times.