Forty days and forty nights

Today marks my fortieth day in isolation. Last night, my fortieth night, a night which saw me visited by disturbing and unusually violent dreams. It is some time since dreams of conflict and air raids have come to me, but last night I lived through serial dreaming of life-threatening attacks, fleeing and sheer terror. I was transported back to my humanitarian work in conflicts in South Asia and the deep basic fear living in such violent times. My recent anxiety dreams were humorous little vignettes in comparison.

I find myself divided. I can rationalise this experience and how my mind is dealing with the scale and uncertainty of such an unprecedented situation. I know and understand that our mental wellbeing is being tested to the very ends of its capacity. I know I have techniques at my fingertips such as meditation, taking control of what I can, escapist reading and when all else fails, the most tasteless of TV viewing. But where the conscious mind strives to stay dominant, the sub conscious and emotional side rise up when least expected and before I know it, I find myself tearful and fearful. I know it is a natural response, I know it is valid. And I know it will pass. Sooner or not so sooner.

What I am struggling with, is how to balance the ability to understand and rationalise the psychological process that I am going through, in the company of very many, with this desertion of my resilience and how that actually makes me feel. I know how I should feel. Thankful, resilient, safe and reasonably well. And know how I do feel. Frightened, alone, distraught and tearful. I am not looking for advice or sympathy. I am purely looking for this to pass, and for this emotional fragility to be validated. It’s ok to not be ok.

I do want to emphasise that it is not so much the isolation, and being on my own that is troubling me at the moment. Though I do not deny that it is odd and disconcerting not being able to go out at all and interact with people in so many walks of daily life. No, it is more that I have no idea when this will end, and what the broader future looks like. So much is impossible to predict while the pandemic is in these early days. Big questions trouble me. The economic shakeout, especially for someone of my age; the health scenario and the prospect of being unable to go about daily life again for some considerable time, especially for those with age and underlying health conditions, again, again like myself; the shock that this will place on society in broader terms as the fingers of this virus dig into already existing divides in our communities; the fact that this is the first truly global emergency I have ever seen, there is no ‘outside help’ to rescue us. We will not see a return to the way things were, but gradually life will settle into its new normality. I just cannot envisage what on earth that might look like and the changes that we will need to adapt to.

I strive to see past this, despite its enormity, and keep a focus on nature and growth around me. Some days it works better than others.

buzzy

Forty days and forty nights, this is not a long time but nor is it insignificant. I cannot think of another time of life when I have been totally isolated for more than a few days or a couple of weeks. And quite why this emotional heaviness has come at this time, is a mystery. All I do know, is that this is real and I find myself struggling. But I also have a conviction that this too shall pass, and for now it is ok not to be ok.

None of us is truly alone.

Grounded: Poetry for these times

Grounded.

A punishment. A compliment. An observation. An instruction.

A sign of our times.

 

You’re grounded!

You’ve been naughty!

You can’t go out, and see your friends,

no cinema,

or chatting at the corner

Until I say!

 

You’re grounded.

Setting stress to the side.

Breathing in.

Eyelids resting.

The mind’s eye,

unseeing the pain and torment.

 

You’re grounded.

So serene.

Centred.

Settled.

Calm.

How do you do it?

I guess you meditate?

 

You’re grounded.

Stay in, save lives!

For now.

For many days,

and weeks

to come.

 

You’re grounded.

A time to still the soul,

put anxiety to the side,

and try to listen,

watch,

breathe.

 

Do you hear the birds,

as they gather in the timbers?

The bees flitting from shrub to hedge,

checking freshly sprouting buds and blossoms?

Can I hear the breeze

whispering

in the overgrown undergrowth?

I can feel

the late spring sunshine

pushing aside

the winter chill,

trying to warm

my anxious soul.

 

Much is unknown.

New.

Fearful.

Sorrowful.

Tragic.

Unprecedented, all voices say.

Yet the days move along

unaware of mankind’s distress .

 

Still the soul.

Be grounded.

Each day

new buds unfurl,

newborn lambs emerge, surprised innocence in their wide eyes.

Each day

the sun climbs higher in the northern sky

towards summer

and beyond.

 

Towards the days of a new, renewed now.

 

blossom 1

Paralysis – reflection and reminiscence

I feel as if I have been here before.

Over 10 years ago, I heard words which were to rock my world. The landscape around me shifted seismically and everything I thought was certain, was no longer so. In a state of shock and disbelief, I embarked on a path step by step. Tiny step by tiny step. Mostly forwards but not always. A line in the sand had been drawn – when I heard the surgeon say “this is highly suspicious of cancer“.

I remember in those early days following diagnosis, being astounded that the world continued as normal all around me. As I moved through the treatments and procedures my focus was on survival and on moving from one step to another. I became gradually used to the new landscape, and was able to continue to function.

However, I was aware that as I garnered my emotional, physical and psychological strength and resilience, I felt as if life was on pause. I was completely unable to think beyond the immediate, let alone plan. I counted time in increments through treatments, unable to consider making arrangements for what we all think of as social and personal activities. It was like a paralysis, I was cocooned, unable to move.

And the realisation has dawned on me that the emotional space I am in right now, as the pandemic is taking its hold, is uncannily like that space 10 years ago. This is day 22 of self isolation and shielding. I arrived home from work 22 days ago, having agreed that afternoon that I would work from home from then on to reduce risk while travelling to work on busy buses. I picked up a couple of items from the shop on my way home. Excellent stocking up – a jar of red pesto, a small packet of macaroni and some miso soups. I had no idea when I shut the front door, that I would not be leaving again for the foreseeable future. Family conversations that evening were frank and sobering. We talked through the risks that I faced. Age and underlying health conditions meant that I would not fare well if I contracted COVID-19. Additionally, as the pandemic took hold, the health service would be placed under extreme pressure to accommodate very ill patients. We realised at that point that I should immediately self isolate. And so, on Friday 13 March, I closed my doors to the outside world.

In many ways, life continues. The sun rises, it travels across the sky and taking a little longer each day, it sets again. I work from home, hold meetings and discussions online. Life has been transferred predominantly online. I have FaceTime, Zoom and Skype chats in the evening with friends, sometimes in small groups. Our Book Club and Writing Group now meet online. But even though life is continuing, it has been changed irrevocably. We don’t know when it will settle and resume and in particular, we don’t know what the new world will look like when it does settle. 

The aspect which is so difficult to comprehend, is the enormity of this. This is not a personal or localised crisis. This is a crisis for humanity across the globe. And if the most developed and sophisticated health and social support systems are buckling under the pressure, the challenges which the most vulnerable communities face is terrifying.

This is not an individual trauma, we are in a collective state of shock and I believe that we are just at the start.

So again, I find myself in this strange paralysis. This is not a pause where we can make the most of this new “free time”. I am finding that this is a time for adjustment to this new altered reality we find ourselves in. And I am finding that we are responding and reacting in different ways. This is bringing out the very best in many with heart wrenching accounts of kindness and selflessness, and sadly the worst in a small minority.

As I read more and more from fellow cancer veterans, that they are shaken by how much they are reminded of the times of shock when diagnosed, I have been reflecting back on my own diagnosis time. When I look back over my blog posts from those days, I could quite easily do a “find and replace” exercise, replacing “cancer” with COVID19. Back then, I would lurch from fear and anxiety to grim determination to beat this thing (as if I had any choice in the matter). But through it all, I was bathed in this numbing paralysis. And that is how I find these days, and weeks ahead. I can deal with the immediate. Working from my kitchen table, eating from the contents of my fridge and cupboards, household tasks, working out how to get an online shop, being humbled by the kindness of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours dropping off care and food packages, and even birthday cake on my doorstep. But I cannot shake off this sense of being on hold, paused as we are moved forwards through this evolving crisis.

The sense of deja vu prompted me to re-read an old blog post where I had commented on the extent that my world and landscape had been so drastically altered. And this is what I wrote, over 10 years ago:

There are two things which shape the way I see this diagnosis.  Firstly is the fact that life is less about what happens to us, than how we deal with what happens to us.  I can’t change the diagnosis but I am in charge of how I handle what is coming.  So be prepared for inappropriate humour and oodles of feistiness.  The other thing is hard to describe.  Life changes with such a diagnosis, and you can’t go back to what it was before.  From the day I googled galore and realised that there was a real possibility that this was breast cancer, I realised also that there are many things I can no longer take for granted.  All plans change, in fact all plans are cancelled or put on hold.  It is a bit like the sun rising every morning – you know you can rely on it, you know it will come up and some days are sunnier than others and you can see it clearly, some days cloudier but it is light so you know that the sun did rise again.  But imagine if suddenly, one day the sun doesn’t rise.  Everything changes.  Everything fundamental you take for granted, suddenly shifts.  No daylight, no warmth, no growth and the colours all change.  But, after the shock and with human resilience, the will to survive, creativity and technology, ways are developed of dealing with it and life continues.  But it can never be the same, it can never go back to the way it was before.  All right, that is an extreme and dramatic analogy, but there is something about this diagnosis that feels similar to me.

December 2009

And  I realise that I don’t need to shake off this feeling of paralysis. I need to embrace this as my own way of coping through this. It won’t last for ever. This too shall pass. And life will gradually settle. The cancer experience means that I know that it won’t be the same, and it could be very different. And, as long as COVID19 does not take me, then life will gradually resume in its new formhope

And indeed, life does continue. New shoots, buds and flowers are appearing as spring moves forward towards summer. And the sun rises, it travels across the sky taking a little longer each day, and sets again, in preparation for the new day and days to come.

African sunset