It’s six in the morning and I have had one of those broken nights where only the promise that nothing lasts forever keeps me going, not even this sleepless night. Upstairs the neighbours are partying, their laughter coming in waves. Then silence. And then the music, dancing and more laughter. It seems fitting that I am beneath all the celebration and joy overhead. Much like watching a loud plane break a clear sky with its flight and wondering where the passengers are going. A means of escape feels very distant to me right now. Being sick for a long time can feel like living underground, a life in the shadows where one is painfully aware of what is happening on the surface in the world above.
Two weeks ago a miracle happened – I felt well enough to go out in the evening for two nights in a row. I met friends, some of whom I had not seen since before getting ill, and I looked and felt like a healthy person. It was the taste of freedom and the echo from my previous life that I crave constantly. However I was not out of the woods yet. A week ago I developed more new painful symptoms and a mysterious infection which medication just won’t budge and have been bedbound ever since. I have been chomping painkillers like chocolates but they don’t touch the sides. I am very afraid.
The constant trauma of being ill long-term means that each new symptom, each new facet of illness brings with it terrifying waves of anxiety. The questions swirl around my head will I get worse ? why is it happening ? when will this pain leave me ? what can I do to make it end ? As the panic escalates the answers are torturous – It will get worse, you will die a painful and lengthy death and there is nothing you can do.
The truth is I do not know what will happen. But even not knowing the outcome of my current state and that anything could happen, good as well as bad, gives me no comfort. I want to know. I want to know now that it will all be OK. Being present to feeling in the wilderness just heightens my fear.
Fear is a gateway to truth, if only we can listen to it. I am indebted to one writer who has helped me on my journey – this blog post by the esteemed Tara Brach sheds light on what we can do in such trying times. We can soften, we can let the grief and the terror have its place and we can feel the love and tenderness that is available to us. We can love ourselves.
It would be an exaggeration to say that I am experiencing the peace Tara talks about. However I do have a map and at least I know I am not alone. How many people at this hour feel the pain of not knowing the outcome or live with the prospect of a cruel future ? Millions to be sure. How many of us, when faced with the truth of our own mortality buckle ? To collapse when confronted with the harsh reality of our short time here, the fragility of flesh and bone, is an understandable response.
There’s more. Now I know my feeling scared is human I can look further. One thing that illness has not taken from me is my inquisitive nature. I always want to know what the next question is, what else there is to learn. If I allow my starting point to be my legitimised fear and if I can be tender to myself in these moments I can then look behind the fear and see what it’s preventing me from seeing.
At first it’s grief. Oceans of tears for so much loss – beginning with all that I have lost since my illness began and then bleeding out like an inkblot to all losses, past, present and future. That hurts so much I can hardly continue my exploration. The fear rises again but something tells me to continue on my path.
Fear has stripped away every line of defence I thought I had. I am exhausted, sad and defeated. But wait – even as I write this, sick and tired as I am – I see myself as totally lost , stranded in a vast nowhere and very alone. This is it. The party people are listening to Stevie Wonder, how could I resent them their good taste ? I am alone in the wilderness listening to “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” through the floorboards and a slight smile crosses my face. Another thought – what happens if, just for a moment, I loosen my grip and stand back and just observe.
Locating that I do and have always felt lost, estranged even in my own body, gives me some calm at last. I can say with certainty that I have never felt at home in the world. This truth brings tears of relief and quietens the fearsome chatter in my head.
This is where I am. I am nowhere. I do not know why this shocking revelation gives me comfort but it does. For a brief moment I touch my own nothingness. And I feel almost OK. If I keep touching the truth of the nowhere and the nothingness then the fear eases.
I can hear more talking upstairs. Someone has a lot to say, and loudly. And me ? I am in the cradle of this vast unknown space. I am held by the stars.