I’ve been thinking lately about a saying that really bothers me: “God only gives us what we can handle“.
I’ve suffered from (usually mild, sometimes very challenging) mental illness since I was a teen. Sometimes I slide into a period of depression without much warning or reason; more often than not I’ve managed to dodge slings and arrows and, at the same time, maintain relatively stable mental health.
I’ve always considered it a dubious sort of achievement that, despite my problems, I’ve never taken any time off work due to stress in all my life. I’ve supported many friends who’ve taken time out from working to recover or recharge. I consider it absolutely right that those who suffer from mental ill-health be given the same consideration when unfit for work as those suffering from physical ill-health. At the same time I’ve always been very driven, and very high functioning, and have never allowed myself any breathing room where this is concerned. As is so often the case, one rule for others and another for myself.
Since my late teens I followed a boom and bust cycle of so much activity, commitment, productivity, and enthusiasm, followed by significant physical and emotional burnout. My GP tells me this is very typical of those who are eventually diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/M.E., which happened to me late in 2016 after I never really recovered from a bout of glandular fever.
Though depression can induce a debilitating lack of motivation, I never felt a fatigue quite like the CFS/ME variety. Heavy or ‘dead’ limbs, an inexplicable exhaustion, a ‘foggy’ brain, inability to concentrate on or process complex information… Suddenly, the physical energy and cognitive function that propelled me so successfully through the periods of activity and productivity were both beginning to fail. I gave up my part-time study and other ‘extra curricular’ pursuits and, eventually, reasonable adjustments were put into place at work, where I still put in 37.5 hours per week.
Just over a week ago, around 5am on Sunday morning, I got a call from my brother to explain that my Mum had been rushed into ICU and was awaiting heart surgery. Adrenaline overrode my feeble body for the next 48 hours or so and I rushed to the hospital and waited. My Stepfather was en-route from London, awaiting the first train, and so my brother and I became the nominated next of kin.
Though my Mum suffered a heart attack in October 2011, she had a stent fitted and regained excellent heart function. It was a worrying time, but all had been stable for a number of years. In December 2016 my Mum had started to experience further symptoms, including some that had damaged her kidneys significantly. But again she had been stabilised and discharged, and as far as we knew, all was in hand.
Shortly after I arrived at the hospital, my brother and I were called in to talk to a ward doctor, and then a junior consultant. We were told that surgery was not an option, that the prognosis was rather poor, and I began to understand some of the language doctors use when trying to avoid words like ‘die’ or ‘dying’. Instead, phrases like ‘potentially lethal’ and ‘not a good outcome’ are used, and questions around quality of life and DNR wishes are asked. I believed we were being told that my Mum was unlikely to survive the coming hours and so we braced ourselves as best we could.
My Mum contracted polio when she was three years old, and hasn’t walked unaided since. But she has always been a fierce sort, and led a fierce sort of life; a Paralympic swimming career, a second career in fashion design, a lifetime spent campaigning for disability rights, an MBE that could’ve only been accepted once her ‘anti-establishmentism’ had softened slightly in late middle age. She saw off an abusive husband and raised two kids alone. When I was young we joked that although our birthdays were only two days apart, straddling an astrological cusp, she was so very fiercely Leo and I was so very melancholically Cancer. It was very distressing to see her so vulnerable.
Those first hours and days were hard. For the first time in my life, I felt my loose grasp on…..well, everything, starting to slip. I had been barely coping with other stresses at the time, and the camel’s back was beginning to break.
Here’s where I have an issue with “God only gives us what we can handle“. Sometimes life gives us much more than we can handle, and whether god-given or otherwise, the path becomes unsustainable.
Even with the support of a wonderful partner and wonderful friends, I reached my breaking point.
I found myself exhausted: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and every which way. I found myself wondering where I could find strength. I found my body failing me even when my family stayed at my Mum’s bedside. I found myself fighting sleep when I desperately wanted to stay awake to stare at the myriad monitors my Mum was hooked up to, to listen for and decipher the wrong sort of beeps, to watch her chest rise and fall noting that this meant she was still with us, and to wait for her eyes to open so I could transform my face into a smile, to confer hope and faith and optimism. Adrenaline took me so far, and carried me further over the coming days, but I still felt a toxic brew of shame and guilt stewing inside me.
I called my GP the following day, so humiliated I had to take the phone call alone. I felt like the worst kind of failure. I didn’t want anyone I loved or respected to judge me for my utter weakness.
All said, I am so lucky and so grateful for my GP. An absolute champion of a general practitioner, she gave me time and genuine empathy. We talked and talked, and she gave me what was, in my eyes, the all-important permission to take time out from working to deal with my Mum’s prognosis and immediate recovery, and to spend time with her in hospital.
See, I do think that life sometimes gives us more than we can handle. In my case, a complex web of micro-stresses, my own tendency towards shaky mental health, and the new addition of sometimes-extreme fatigue, all accumulated beyond my ability to cope.
Faith is a curious thing. I’m an atheist, but I’m no Richard Dawkins. Do no harm, sure, but we should all be able to take comfort in and courage from that which sustains and strengthens us. Life absolutely gave me more than I could handle (and I’m sure it will again) but what sustained and strengthened me was this: a vulnerable and honest conversation with my doctor, sharing my heartache with my friends, and accepting the love and support of those who care.
There is no shame in waving for a lifeguard when you feel yourself starting to drown. It’s okay if you can’t handle any more. It’s okay to run out of strength, and to seek help. It’s okay to share your messy/messed up feelings and to put a little faith into the kindness of those who want to support you.
I’ve shared in this post a few images I’ve taken this past week: cycling to and from the hospital to visit my Mum as she gets stronger and recovers from this episode, and of sitting in the garden to enjoy the evening sun with my pooch. I’ve tried to take the time to appreciate the little things and to allow myself some breathing space in the midst of so much difficulty and sadness.
My Mum is now under the care of an excellent cardiologist, and though the path is still a tricky one, she is much improved and the prognosis for this particular event is now more positive. The staff within the hospital’s intensive care and coronary care units were (and are) simply amazing. Even though many were called away to deal with some very distressing admissions on Monday night of this week, they returned to business as usual like absolute champions. (Note: please, don’t vote tory.)
So, really, that’s all, folks. I just wanted you to take it from me that it’s okay to be vulnerable and to give up trying to juggle it all on your own.
Thank you for all the wonderfully kind comments over on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook over the last week. I told my Mum that The Internet was rooting for her <32