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