Getting back up – a reprieve, 23 hill reps, and ditching the big, fake smile

I’m listening to The Ballad of Lucy Jordan by Marianne Faithfull; it’s my writing song, the one I listen to when I want to touch a chord and open up a fiction flow, but tonight it’s not reaching me.

This year, family illness reached crisis point: I was looking at an OH with an incurable, progressive illness, a child who was advised to “only go to places where they have a defibrillator” (how exactly does that work? – later we’d receive an apology for this advice), two other children who might be affected by the same disorder (please, no…), and my own body covered in scars. On the floor lay the remnants of my career and an almost-dead social life (at one point, I didn’t go out for over five years).

For years I’ve fought back, working at night, caring for my family by day, and coming off my introvert/freelancer perch to try and support my kids in school, hospitals and socially. If I got tired, I drank coffee. If I couldn’t stand up straight (post-op), I worked bent over. If I couldn’t work, I volunteered. If I couldn’t volunteer, I worked on fixing what was stopping me. I never, ever rested.

The ferocity of the health storm and my desperate resistance gradually escalated into a sort of mental marathon. The worse it got, the more determined, anxious, and sometimes terrified I became. I burned off adrenaline by jumping into winter seas without a wetsuit and running through night gales, because screw this.

Icy water

One of the hardest things was trying to stay sweet. I tried to be fastidiously polite, and not shout left-wing rhetoric at smug, middle-class bolsters wittering on about their second bathrooms and moaning about plumbers. I overused the word “lovely” when what I meant was “fuck”. Fuck this stupid illness, fear, pain, NHS-cuts, waiting times, downward spirals, and your second bathroom.

I stuck on the mother of all fake smiles, to shield everyone from my misery and protect myself from other people’s awful advice. I made my children watch Maleficent too many times.

My big, fake smile, taken 5 mins before my heart scan which would predict my children’s health. I’m terrified and want to be sick. I need someone to hold and rescue me, but it’s not going to happen. I mark the moment with a selfie because if things go badly, I’m likely to be the only person who can help future-me.

Then yesterday, after eight paralysing months of measuring heartbeats and googling life expectancy, and four more terrifying scans, I was told that my kids and I were mostly OK, and the less-than-perfect bits are manageable. The worst diagnosis had been wrong. (We can enter rooms without defibrillators? Apparently so.)

We’re free to go, at least for now.

I was happy. Make no mistake, I would not trade that news for all the gold. 

But it hasn’t sunk in. I’m not sure I even believe it. I’d underestimated the level of ferocity that it has taken to get me through the last few years: ignoring myself to get through the day; the mental blocks I erected at every sentence, forcing myself to bury my anxiety. [Every. Single. Time. I. Spoke.] Part of me still wants to run until I collapse. The part that was too worried to eat still doesn’t want to swallow. The part that couldn’t sleep still sits up at night.

Friends have responded with smiles. I know who my friends are now and I’m lucky to have them: not many people brave other people’s nightmares. Most people graze the surface, or run away. Others enjoy the drama (ew). No one ever knows what to say to each other when bad things happen, but friends look awkward next to you, while non-friends look awkward somewhere else.

(When someone is hit by a truckload of awful shit, the best thing to say is, ‘Oh, bollocks.’ And then stand there, in the shit, beside them. The more uncomfortable and lemon-like the standing, the better the friend. It takes real guts to stick with a mate while they go through horrible times. If you do this, you are a good, good human and you deserve all the love.) 

At the moment, I’m just standing still. My brain is stunned. Someone asked why I was looking so miserable yesterday, not realising that almost every smile over the last year has been forced, and not understanding what a blessed relief it is to finally let that drop.

Since I’m not yet able to feel any deeper relief, I went running. I did 23 hill reps yesterday. Something similar today. My body, that I’ve put through so much pain, feels strong; perhaps I can enjoy that now.

Perhaps I can reach out and claim my career again. Perhaps I can reopen channels of creativity without being knocked over by the fears that imagination feeds. Perhaps I can write.

But for now, as I watch the people I love stepping away from a brink (there will be other brinks, but they’re for another day), I can finally slip away for a few moments without feeling guilty.

Just for a few minutes, I can be alone up on a hill somewhere. Unsmiling. Just long enough to unwrap the little relaxed, gentle part of me that I boxed up a long time ago, and release it back into the wild.


Image attribution: raptor / herons 

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