For the more observant amongst you, you may have noticed that my blog title has changed. It is just subtle but it represents a fundamental change in my life. No longer does it feel appropriate to host a blog entitled, ‘What Will Happen to M.E.?‘ but rather it is now the slightly more appropriate title, ‘What Will Happen to Me?‘ The subtle omission of those two simple dots may pass by unnoticed by some but for me they’re deletion is a cause of great celebration.
In two weeks time, my husband and I will go to spend another weekend with his family: celebrating his father’s birthday. 12 months ago, this very birthday weekend marked the very beginning of my illness. An illness that was to throw myself, my husband and my family into a brand new and unexpected world of uncertainty, pain and fear. The gradual and then sudden disappearance of this world over the last few months is still a source of amazement and at times shock.
Where previously my blog title represented a sense of confusion over my future – a sense of loss, my new title represents an awareness that I am now in a position to do whatever I want. I have no idea what is going to happen now. I have no idea where I will end up living; what I will end up doing.
What drove me in the past, for the moment at least, no longer drives me. I no longer care if I become a headteacher, I no longer care if we live in a fabulous house, I no longer care about my husband’s career progressing as quickly as possible.
Without being melodramatic, in the last year I faced being bed-bound or at best housebound for the rest of my life. It is only by a combination of a miracle and my determination that I no longer face this. However, if I was to face this again, would I care that I’d become a headteacher if it meant that myself and my husband hadn’t spent much time together so that I could do the job? If I was to face this again, would I care that my husband had a brilliant career and earned lots of money if I knew it had made him miserable?
I have been returning to work on Monday afternoons for the last few weeks for staff training. Last week, we had training in a program called, Shut Up and Move On (SUMO). This program is all about how to be logical and balanced in your emotional reactions to events. One thing that was said that I felt clearly reverberated with me was that most of us live our lives on auto-pilot.
Day to day, week to week and year to year we live our lives without thought. We rarely stop and consider what we are doing, why we are doing it and whether we really want to do it. Prior to my illness, I would probably have denied that I lived my life in such a way. A year in which I stepped off the treadmill of life however has allowed me to reflect on the reality of what I was doing, why I was doing it and whether I really wanted to do it.
This year has allowed me to realise that I was living my life on auto-pilot: that much of my dreams and aspirations were ill-thought out or not thought out at all. Some of the things I did previously reflected perhaps a high-moral point of view – it was acceptable, for example, for me to work more than twice the hours (32.5) I was paid for a week because it meant the students got a better education in a better more secure environment. While the moral value of this, i.e. the desire to put others before yourself is incredibly admirable – is it still acceptable? Is the value of what I gave students by working more than twice what I was paid to, worth the fact that it was having a negative impact on my own life?
I recently heard a teacher talk about the self-sacrifice being worth it for the benefit of our students. It made me want to scream. While I have no intention to become self-centred and inflexible, the idea that your life and your health is worth so much less than that of your students is not an acceptable way to live. If nothing else, my self-sacrifice contributed to 300 plus students over the last year not having an English Department that supported them as it should have.
My life and that of my life with my husband, family and friends is incredibly important. Consequently, this life must come first. I am proud of what I have achieved in my professional career so far and I am sure that I will be proud of what I will achieve in the future. I am not however prepared to put my career ahead of myself, ahead of my husband and ahead of my family anymore.
This illness and my recovery (which I’m incredibly grateful for and amazed by) has released me to live my life no longer on auto-pilot. It has given me the freedom to do anything I want. It has also given me the freedom to enjoy the little things in life. The little things that make your life more rounded and whole and that are ultimately significantly more important than what we normally consider to be of more value: educational achievement; career; money; things; house.
Yesterday, my husband and I went for a 2.5 mile walk through the New Forest. A walk I have done a million times. Yet, this was the first time in a year I had been able to do it. I suspect unless you have been ill or have had your future or your ability to do even simple things put in question, you will not be able to understand the simple joy doing such an ordinary thing as going for a walk gives you.
I do not think such achievements as walking or climbing up a hill or reading your book for an hour or socialising with friends all afternoon are new joys. I don’t think they have gone from something of limited significance to now being hugely important. What has changed however is that I can now recognise that they are achievements and recognise they bring me joy.
If these little things can give me a sense of achievement and joy, then there is only one other question. What else is there out there that I have yet to do that can bring me equal if not even more joy or an equal if not even greater sense of achievement?
I was never somebody who was afraid of a challenge, I was never afraid of change but I have learnt that I am stronger and I am braver than I thought and that I can do anything I want. To not, therefore, go out and try and do new things and face new challenges seems an incredible waste of a life.
So last weekend, I went cavern trampolining in a slate cavern twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral. It scared me so much, my legs shook and for much of it I clung to the net terrified but I achieved all I set out to achieve. I ran several times across the trampolines, I climbed up a scary ramp that required both emotional and physical strength, I went down a slide that scared me. Every time I was scared, I repeated to myself, ‘I can do it, I can do it.‘ Why? Because I could, I got through last year, I can get through anything.
Every where I look I seem to see challenges just begging me to do them. I have never climbed Mount Snowden so why not? I have never been on the longest zip wire in Europe so why not? I have never driven across Australia so why not? Part of the SUMO concept is to ask yourself several questions so that you can put your fears in perspective. One question is on a scale of 1 – 10 where 10 means certain death how bad is it or could it be? For the three challenges above perhaps a 1 or 2. Although a venomous snake may climb into your car in Australia which may well mean a 10 but seriously what are the chances of that?
While I have yet to learn whether this illness will have left behind any permanent physical limitations on my life (certainly I wasn’t quite physically ready for the intense aerobic nature of the trampolining), I do know that I will always do my best not to emotionally or practically limit my life and how I live it.
The reality of adopting such an approach to life does mean that I cannot predict where we will end up living, what we will end up doing and whether or not I shall stay in education. The other reality is, ‘I can do it‘, I am brave and I am strong. There is nothing I cannot achieve.
The even more observant amongst you will have noticed my blog subtitle has also changed. This required some thinking. How did I reflect what is in my blog prior to my illness, what is in it now and what I hope will be in it in the future? I settled on, ‘Living Life‘. For this is exactly what I intend to do. I intend to live my life not just experience it as a by-stander. So I do not have the answer to the question, ‘What Will Happen to Me?‘ but isn’t that exciting?