‘Ill­ness is some­thing you carry, that you live with . . . It’s a part of who you are’

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - Fer­dia MacAonghusa

In hos­pi­tal the first time, a so­cial worker came into my room. I was 16, in a chil­dren’s ward – too tall for all the beds and frankly freaked out. My life as I knew it was chang­ing and my med­i­cal chart came in a folder with Tig­ger from Win­nie the Pooh on it.

The so­cial worker was kind, she asked me how I was do­ing. I mut­tered some­thing. I wouldn’t learn how to tell some­one how I was do­ing for an­other cou­ple of years. She asked me how physio was go­ing and I mut­tered some­thing again. She told me that a lot of peo­ple in my po­si­tion, a lot of young men, they put all of their anger and pain and loss into re­cov­ery and into physio. That I could put it all into com­ing back. Then she left my room. So I found that there was a fire in me. And I found that I knew how to use it. I fought to re­cover, I fought to stay in my class in school, I fought to get into the course I wanted. I fought to keep walk­ing even though it was both un­be­liev­ably painful and un­man­age­ably ex­haust­ing. Ev­ery time I fell down, speak­ing en­tirely lit­er­ally here, I fought to get back up. The fire kept me go­ing. And even­tu­ally, the fire ran out. It hap­pened to­wards the end of my sec­ond year in col­lege, right af­ter I fin­ished work on a big TV project. It wasn’t ex­haus­tion, at least not phys­i­cal or men­tal. I had been, and let’s face it, con­tinue to be, ex­hausted since the be­gin­ning of all of this. It was some­thing closer to a spir­i­tual cri­sis. I had be­lieved for so long that I could get back up from any­thing – that I should get back up from any­thing. But nei­ther of those things were true.

Even the lan­guage we use to talk about ma­jor ill­ness, es­pe­cially can­cer, is dis­tinctly mil­i­taris­tic. It’s a bat­tle, some­thing that you beat. I don’t know why. Maybe we can’t man­age what hap­pens to peo­ple, to ev­ery­one, with­out mak­ing it sound like a good guys ver­sus bad guys Hol­ly­wood movie. But that’s not re­ally how it works. Ill­ness is some­thing you carry, that you live with how­ever you can. It’s a part of who you are, and be­ing at war with a part of your­self is pretty damn un­com­fort­able.

Lot of shame

I took some proper time off in sec­ond year. And I didn’t do that well aca­dem­i­cally that year or the next. I prop­erly in­vested time and ef­fort in ther­apy. It was far from a pain­less process. I felt a lot of shame about it all. I felt like I was dis­ap­point­ing my friends and my fam­ily. Man, I even felt like I was dis­ap­point­ing the doc­tors who I only see twice a year. (Shame is a weird emo­tion which we need to get bet­ter at talk­ing about.) I had lived for so long with this mad drive that stop­ping for even a sec­ond felt like a world-end­ing fail­ure.

But fail­ure isn’t the end of the world. It isn’t the end of any­thing. I don’t even think you ought to learn from fail­ure, any more or less than peo­ple ought to be learn­ing things all the time. The only thing you have to do with fail­ure is ac­cept it.

Ob­vi­ously, you can’t build a life on fail­ure alone. We need to want things, we need to oc­ca­sion­ally get them too. And some­times some­thing hap­pens that means you need that manic fire. Liv­ing is al­ways hard work. But with just a lit­tle bit more ac­cep­tance in my life – well it felt like I had been liv­ing my life hand­cuffed to a ma­niac and now I was fi­nally free.

There’s a video on YouTube that I go back and watch a cou­ple of times a year. It’s an in­ter­view with Leonard Co­hen af­ter he had been or­dained as a Bud­dhist monk. The im­age and sound qual­ity is ter­ri­ble and the in­ter­viewer can be a lit­tle bit pushy at times but I find great com­fort in watch­ing a man ex­plain how he freed him­self from de­pres­sion.

Who, af­ter a lot of years of suf­fer­ing, found a dif­fer­ent way to be.

Fer­dia MacAonghusa: “I find great com­fort in watch­ing a man ex­plain how he freed him­self from de­pres­sion”

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