Growing Pains- My Year of Illness Changed Me
Exactly one year ago bacteria poisoned my blood. I don’t know how. Three weeks later the plane that was supposed to take me to a new life in South America took off, leaving me in hospital fighting the septicaemia that had spread to my heart. In June I got the all clear only to be rushed, five days later, back into hospital for a massive heart operation- the second since I was 14.
Recovery has been long, slow, frustrating.
What the received wisdom on Life and it’s “Struggles” doesn’t mention is how hard the hard part is. We’ve all seen the true story triumph-against-the-odds films. They’re inspirational and the characters admirable. The problem is we never really see the pain and the exhaustion these people actually went through. We don’t feel their claustrophobic vertigo of being utterly lost. Or if we do, we don’t pay any attention to it, because nobody makes a movie about a guy who tried really hard but failed- in the end, we know, “it’ll all be ok”.
But in Real Life you don’t know- you’ve no fucking idea. And that’s the hard part. It doesn’t feel noble or romantic; it feels scary and shit. It’s not a brave struggle, it’s a daily trudge, uphill, against the wind- sometimes with blisters. Every step you’re doubting yourself. The person you thought you were gets lost in the fight and you’re left standing like a deer in headlights, stuttering an answer to a question you’ve never really, properly asked yourself before.
“Who am I?”
I don’t know, but I used to- or at least thought I did. I had all these ideas about myself, constructed narratives about who I was. Those identities, so central to my own understanding of myself and my place in the world, are no longer true. The things that give us our identity- our jobs, our plans, our careers, our sense of control are no longer relevant to me.
But they used to be. I used to fill in the narrative of my own life story all the time, giving myself credit for all the things I achieved; a pat on the back for every step of progress. In the same way everyone does, I fostered an identity for myself and this identity helped me justify the sacrifices I made- work hard in college and enjoy the reward later. But over the last year each constructed facade has been torn down, the comforting conception of who I am has been eviscerated, leaving not much more than just the bare essentials of “Me”.
I guess this is what they call a “Crisis of Identity”- which, now that I’ve put a name on it seems to either A) make it more normal and therefore less interesting; or B) make it more pathetic (I’m 24 after all, not some pudgy middle manager). Either way, they’re not great options, and either way my 24 years of life experience haven’t prepared me for this.
I don’t really know what to do with this existential disorientation, this agitating feeling of desolation. Not only am I unable to think outside the box, I’m stuck inside it- and the walls are closing in. The box filters out positive light leaving you only able to see the negative, like the fact that you’re on the verge of joining the grim ranks of the “Long Term Unemployed”- a cohort distinguished by economists for being generally and uniquely fucked.
From the box you can also see your friends. They’re zooming ahead and no matter which way you angle yourself to see it differently, objective circumstances push beyond any doubt what you already know: The competition you’ve enjoyed with your friends for years now is over- and you’ve lost.
When all of this happens; when like layers of epidermis each narrative you’ve constructed gets peeled away and the person you thought you were is gone, all that’s left is the raw flesh beneath, stinging in the cold wind of Real Life.
But that’s it, all I’ve got. This red-raw skin is my Core- it’s me disrobed from the bullshit. But in the same way I can’t look down and see my own neck, I can’t see who or what my “Core” is. I imagine it as some sort of pillar, anchoring me. But that’s on good days, on bad days I’m less sure: How do I know there’s anything there at all? Maybe there’s nothing. But if there’s nothing, then what am I?
That’s a slippery road, one that luckily I haven’t yet gone down. So I stay hopeful that there is after all some intrinsic Core to my person- to whoever “I” am.
And maybe I have reason to be hopeful. I mean I’ve survived this far, which says something. And like everyone else I’ve always battled hardships- and like everyone else some where tougher than others. A brief overview of mine include two big surgeries; wetting-the-bed till I was 10 or 11; chronically suffering from eczema and psoriasis (mildly, thank god- but anyone who has been plagued by these conditions know how utterly disheartening they are). I’ve dealt with disappointment, insecurity and a million other small, daily mindless battles.
But I survived. Actually, mostly I thrived: I was good in school, and managed to negotiate the minefield of adolescence fairly well- never obviously popular, never without friends. I was head boy- the lads were appalled, but I got enough grief about it to know there were appalled for- and not by- me.
During college I travelled. One summer I hitchhiked all over Spain. Another I booked a one way ticket to Munich, became a tour guide and had the best four months of my life. In college I debated, drank, talked about change with the undergraduate fervour of the best of them; studied Keynes and Plato and Rawls and Marx. I managed a café and graduated first class honours.
All of that, I think, shows that maybe there is some “Core” to me after all. And maybe getting pared down to my bare bone essentials isn’t so bad. Maybe in 5 or 10 years time, I’ll look back and be glad all those cushy layers of narrative were peeled away. Maybe now I’ll better, stronger.
Not that any of that is easy or obvious, or even necessarily true. I hope this doesn’t sound trite, or worse; “bravely optimistic”. Because I’m not. And because even if this new pared down version of Me ends up ok, there’s still plenty of that Me that I don’t like.
I’d change loads about myself if I could: I wish I was a “lighter” person; someone less “weighty”. If you’ve read the Unbearable Lightness of Being you’ll know the distinction- if not, well you can probably figure it out anyway. Being a “heavy” person isn’t to say I’m never fun or happy; it’s just that my default setting is serious; it’s introspective, a little frenetic. Not that I’m apologising- but being like this makes me less attuned to lighter conversations; I don’t laugh as much as I’d like.
I don’t like my big, stupid, floppy ears either. Or my hairy toes. Or the way winter makes my skin infuriatingly itchy. I wish my heart didn’t seem to need a retrofit every decade. And I’ve got an imperceptibly small bump on my left forehead that I wish wasn’t there. My signature changes every time I use it (which, by definition means I literally don’t have a signature). I’m a slow runner; I poo too much; my voice is too deep; I don’t know how to order a good haircut; I sometimes struggle to pronounce my own name; the weather gets me down; I have a poor sense of style and when I go shopping I will- without fail- buy something that is too big and something that I will never, ever wear.
I can spend hours in bed worrying about preposterously unlikely events. I sneeze all-the-fucking-time, especially if my head gets a bit cold or, bizarrely, when I get drunk sometimes. I never leave my house without toilet tissue in at least one pocket. I often get sleepy or melancholic when I get drunk- which is fun for exactly zero people. I worry too much about whether I’m fun and cool, which makes me boring and uncool; and I worry what other people think of me and whether they like me.
Recently though some of that worry has faded; I don’t really care as much about what other people think of me. I don’t care about my weird nasal issues, or my big ears or my hand writing or any if it- and I think I know why: It’s because I’ve decided to love myself.
Now I know. Jesus I know how cloying and mushy that sounds- and listen, if you’d written it, I’d probably cringe too: Without warning I’ve lured you into an uncomfortable moment that’s embarrassing for us both. But before you click back to the safety of your censored News Feed, let me try explain.
Before this year there were times where I would hate myself- maybe that’s a strong word. Not hate, but really dislike- regard with substantial distaste. And not all the time, but sometimes- like for saying a stupid thing, or for freezing up in front of a girl I liked. Or waking up in the morning and feeling fat and realising I still hadn’t achieved the six pack I promised myself I’d have by the summer of 3rd year (8 years ago). Or after a night out where I “failed” to pull a girl, I’d make the lonely walk home, getting more sober and tired and miserable.
I could irritate or disappoint myself for any number of small stupid, normal, unimportant reasons. I was constantly admonishing myself for being too loud, or too quiet, or too serious, or too nervous, or too lazy, or too silly, or too focused. I used to give myself so many self improvement kicks that I was bruised all over.
But now I realise I’ve been through too much to worry about all that. I’ve literally had too many different peoples’ valves stitched into my heart (altogether, I’m currently on my third valve) to have any fucks left to give.
So instead of all that, I’ve decided to love myself.
I love myself because when I was 10 I went on a scout trip to the Isle of Mann, even though I was scared I’d wet-the-bed. I love myself because I worked hard to get into the best college in the country and even harder to graduate second best in my class. I love myself because instead of skulling pints, I go for walks and write to work through my problems. I love myself because my stupid, exhausting mind never shuts off and runs itself into endless rings of tighter and tighter knots of shite, but that same mind also looks at the world with endless curiosity and finds it a beautifully and phenomenally fascinating place.
I love myself because Life has kicked me right in the balls and thrown me in the gutter, but even as I fall, I’m still swinging punches. I love myself because I’ve gathered a core of friends across the world who are good, fun, smart people who care about me. I love myself because despite going though the worst year of my life, I still set an alarm and get out of bed every morning- even when I have nothing to do.
I love myself because after going through all that I have, I deserve it.
This isn’t an overnight transformation. There’s plenty of times when I get embarrassed by the very notion of “loving myself”- and my family would probably say I’m as grumpy as ever. But it’s an easy habit to be pissed off at yourself and disappointed at your life; harder to be happy and grateful, but I’m working on reversing the habit.
I’m a different person now, able to at least see that there’s a different way to look at things. Sometimes I think of myself as a big rectangle block of something soft and malleable, like Play doh. That was me in my comfortable, familiar shape a year ago- a few pockmarks here and there, but otherwise intact. Today I’m a moonscape of craters- a permanent hole for every punch Life has thrown at me. I’m now a much more punctured, irregular shape.
Every time I get pummelled with bad news or disappointment I try to stand back stronger, like a boxer training his abdomen to take a hit without getting winded; I’m hoping these punches are chipping away at the excess; hoping that one day they’ll uncover the true hard potential of “Me”. I’ll be scarred and bumpy to be sure, but surely that’s better than being soft and square. At the very least it’s a more interesting shape, a more interesting story.
Look, I don’t know how true any of this is. Maybe I sound desperate- maybe I am desperate. Maybe my nice boxer metaphor is just hackneyed nonsense, and maybe my Play doh analogy should be extended further: I’m the Play doh and Life is a snotty fingered play school child mashing me into the carpet.
Maybe I can’t see my “Core” because I don’t have one. Maybe I am fucked, and stupid and hopeless. Maybe we all are. I don’t know, and probably never will. But here’s where the choice comes in. Because you’re free to think of all this and of me whatever way you like, but what matters most to me is how I think of this and how I think of me. So I can be worried and depressed and pissed off, or I can be hopeful and optimistic.
I sometimes- often- feel aggrieved at the unfairness of it all. That nobody warned me how hard it would be; how lonely it would be. That nobody told me how to handle the fear when the surgeon draws the curtain around your bed and has “a frank conversation” about survival odds. Nobody gave me a roadmap to find the way out of the skull crushing frustration of waking up to the same circumstances as you did yesterday with no idea, or ability to change them. I was never given the the instructions on how to shrug off the physical heaviness of the disappointment of yet one more hope or plan getting thrown away.
But this is the Big Leagues Baby; Real Life. This is when you realise that Life isn’t interested in the hubris of you; when you realise that your previous 23 and a bit years were easy and sheltered and protected from how raw Life can sometimes be. This is when you finally grow up- you become an adult and realise that Life is hard and sometimes painful and often unfair.
But the trick, I think, is remembering it’s not always that way; or at least that’s what I’m hoping. So I choose to believe there are better days ahead.
Because that’s what it comes down to: A choice- my choice: I’m responsible for it and I’m left with the consequences of it. I choose to be hopeful and optimistic, sometimes if only because there’s as much reason to be hopeful as there is to despair.
And it’s hard- it takes real, physical effort. Arguing with yourself that a year lost could conceivably be an experience gained is exhausting- and boring. Much easier to wallow. But I try, I do my best- not all the time, maybe not even most of the time, but as often as I can.
What happened to me doesn’t even register compared to what people everywhere endure everyday, but that doesn’t mean it was nothing either. I’m proud of myself for getting this far and I know that one way or another I’ll get through this. I know Life will move on and good things will happen, but sometimes that can be difficult to remember.
Sometimes, it’s just been a bit hard.
If you liked this, check out the blog I wrote about my experience of open heart surgery