In today’s post, John Davis pauses from discussing the daily experiences in hospital, the outcomes of four operations and the nature of his impairments, to try to explain what it feels like to not be able to hug your loved ones when you are going through a crisis. In doing so, he draws upon his experiences and that of friends and acquaintances, to try to better understand and convey to you the inhumanity of the current Corona Virus crisis.
The last post highlighted the importance of men engaging with their health and mental health issues. I was extremely lucky to join a rugby club and meet male role models who changed my life. Rugby, taught me about controlled aggression. Ironically it taught me how to be more violent but not to use violence in anger. Over all, my experience as a rugby player made me a better person. It forced me to analyse my need to be aggressive – which related to my upbringing and to be more thoughtful when I got angry. More importantly, there were some very decent human beings in the rugby club (who are still involved to this day) who acted as father and brother figures to me, taught me about dignity and enabled me to bring out my kinder self. Today’s post openly discusses how my traumatic experience created tensions in my relationships and how, sometimes, resulted in me drifting from that dignified person I wanted to be.
The previous post also highlighted some advice from Cousin Dimitri, in New Orleans, including the idea that:
- A crisis brings out the best and worst in folk;
- During a crisis you should always employ follow up questions, interrogate information and check its source;
- You need to find something to do during a crisis to keep your mind occupied and to keep sane but it should not be too ambitious;
- And, you should let go of your current plans, accept life has change irrevocably and yet, make your selves promises about what you might do in the future.
It has taken me ages to work through the ideas in today’s article and I had an ambition to post articles every two or three days but my working life got in the way. I was over ambitious. The shut down has resulted in us having to change our assignments for students, increase our on line teaching and adapt our materials. All the courses I work on involve professionals and one in particular is an initial qualification for leaders and managers in out of school play, early learning, childminding and family support services. The changes to assignments have required negotiations with university committees/senior staff and the professional registering body the Scottish Social Services Council.
My own feeling is that we should not be teaching, we have not learned lessons from Dimitri about letting stuff go. The stress on students and their families is huge, many of our students are key workers who are way over stretched and the emails and calls I am getting are deeply concerning about the impact of the crisis on their lives. In the previous article in this series, I argued that you should not let any one silence you with ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ that suggest we we have to shut up and take our medicine in silence.
There are people who just can not let things go, they are addicted to power and control and their identities are so connected with their work life or their need to feel superior, that they are oblivious to the calmer and more considered possibilities in life. I got very good advice from a male friend this week, which reminded me of Dimitri’s recommendations, this is a time where we need to stand back from ourselves, free our selves of our sacred cows and, therefore, obtain a better understanding of what actually matters in life and a clearer perspective on what, going forward, our priorities should be.
This week I have spoken to lots of people online through my work and also to many close friends. What I am picking up is that their close family relationships are under huge strain. Article four in this series also included a song by Mara Connor called Wildfire which talked about becoming one being better than being two. The current crisis requires us to work collectively, adapt and be flexible but the saddest thing about the Corona crisis is that it does not play fair.
The current crisis means that you can do your best for your loved ones, offer huge support to others and even save the lives of strangers, but then, yourself, be asked to pay the ultimate price. So many good people in front line services are dying. Its been a tragically unfair week. Today’s article considers the connections between tragedy, unfairness and relationship break up.
In so doing, today’s article discusses how cataclysmic events, such as those I endured and the current crisis, put huge pressures on those we love and make it almost impossible for us to maintain the duality of our relationships . As such, today’s article acts as a warning to you, in your own homes and with your loved ones, to stand back from conflict, offer generosity, practice compassion (rather than picking on folk) and focus on small acts of kindness, least you injure those most precious to you and do irrevocable damage to your relationships.
‘My sense of self had taken a doin’. I was battered, beaten and bruised by the four operations. I was constantly receiving intravenous medication to fight off infection. I was existing hour by hour and I could make no predictions about a ‘recovery’. The Eilen jewel song Hallelujah Band, kind of summed up where I was at:
I’m an old guitar with broken strings
And tarnished surface, not fit for kings
But I want to be played by the unseen hand
To make a good noise in the hallelujah band
This could have been the lowest point in my life but I tried not to think of it that way. What ever happened, I could pull on the fact that I still had my friends and family and was not alone. I have had worse times in my life where I have not had others to pull on and have not known what has kept me going.
Recently, a friend, posted on facebook that they had had a tough couple of years struggling with changes in their life. They reflected that they were single, middle-aged and childless and yet ecstatic that they had bought a new home. Stating that they found facebook type ‘personal shitshows’ depressing, they asked that readers not overly-react to their comments. In what was, over-all, an uplifting piece, that included some motivational pictures and cartoons, I was struck by a poem that the person posted which stated:
And, I have slept and lived
Alone before you!
But there’s a difference
In the duality of knowing
The warmth from the cold,
The partial from the whole.
So much to teach you
So much more
I don’t mind saying, I burst into tears when I read the poem because it forced me to come to terms with the fact that in body, mind and spirit, I was now partial not whole. I wondered what the significance was for my friend. I also wondered if this was a poem about a past or present lover, or a poem to a cherished child, or if it wasn’t about a person at all but was about coming to terms with our life experiences. I did not know for sure, but I felt the poem was about loss. Or at least I was able to project my own feeling of loss onto the beginning of the poem.
In spite of fighting so hard to put forward my best self – I realised that I had lost my sense of self in the hospital, I just couldn’t trust who I was anymore because of the manifestations of the drugs, the pain and the sadness.
Hunt as I might on the internet, I could not find the author, indeed I began to wonder if the friend who posted it was also the author. Because of the request that people should not comment, I did not feel able to ask my friend about the poem or the context that lay behind its need to be posted. I was intrigued by the meaning of the post.
Please note, I have not asked my friends permission to discuss their post. Hence, I do so with the greatest of respect, love and admiration. And, in no way wish you to read what comes as a criticism of my friend’s post or their way of being the world.
Though my friend had asked readers not to comment, I felt an urge to respond. The poem encouraged me to interrogate the sad acceptance that I was confronted with in the hospital, that life shattering news changes everything, your world is destroyed, your plans are in ruins and/or your very existence is hanging by a thread. There is a golden thread here to the song called Jim Song by Dr Dog which I posted at the end of article 4. Dr Dog connects hurt pride with being stuck, jealousy and an inability to move on. Pride is important, but it can be a dangerous thing.
I have found it extremely difficult to express my feelings about what happened and what I have been through, which is one of the reasons I have been writing these articles. The articles act as a kind of therapy. They enable me to employ music, text, poems and lyrics, to try to engage with the harsh reality that my mind is still a moving target that hasn’t been able to process what I have gone through. Pictures also help. Whilst out walking on Benarty Hill one day I came upon this sight:
There is something so tortured and yet so tranquil about these two standing stones and trying to stand on uneven ground, with a large stick I use for walking, and take the photo, with out dropping my phone and falling over, was a torturous experience in its self. The barbed wire seemed to represent my own scars from my experience and the trapped nature of my experience. The two stones, though touching each other, are separated by a line of barbed wire that has been pulled between them and down the hill.
The scene immediately reminded me of a Punk Song – Barbed Wire Love by my favourite band in my youth Stiff Little Fingers:
We are currently separated from our loved ones by the Corona Virus. We can communicate with our phones and IT equipment but there is an inability to physically connect. The stones and the song, in some way, symbolise this fact.
When I took the picture the stones, also, symbolised for me the stuck nature of our society. That someone thought it OK to stick a fence line and barbed wire right through such a symbol of our ancient past, tells you a lot about the state of our engagement with nature and our history. The stone on the left had a sense of maleness to me. It, sort of, symbolised the fact that, my attempts to put my best side forward meant I was caught, entrapped and emasculated in my own stony, stoic, pride. My wife characterises what happened to me as unfair and poses questions about what the gods have against us. I don’t go down that route. Our different approaches are very gendered. Yet that does not mean I have totally shut off my emotions. Just that emotions are very tricky at present.
I have always had an emotional, Celtic male, get drunk – and cry at the karaoke songs on a night out – part to my identity. In an earlier poem, I used the word ‘greet’ this is a Scots word for cry. In that poem I said that I could not greet. Usually when we are hurt we cry. But, something about the speed of the process from diagnosis to operating theatre obliterated my feelings. My experience for about 12 months was that I felt terrible for other people who were struggling, I felt their pain, but, somewhat ironically, I had difficulty processing my own pain. My sense of pride at surviving, had actually had an unhelpful side. I had used it to mask the reality of what I had been through.
My friends have been aware of my struggles that the picture represents and I have appreciated the patient way that they have waited for me to tell my story. As a result of these article being posted up online, I have had so many messages of support and kind comments – every one of them greatly appreciated. My favourite one was something like, ‘I’ve got aw ma pals signed up for when its posted, its kinda, get the popcorn out, sit doon wi yir glass o what ever, put yir feat up and away yi go – its like that TV series Rich Man Poor Man o’ the 70s, folk used tae pile oot the pub early on a Friday night so as no tae miss it ….’.
I had written 12 articles before Christmas, so most of this writing was formed before the crisis. I have had some comments which have reminded me to put things into future articles but as you will read later, my memory is now terrible, so if I forget something, or, you think I should add something, let me know. I see writing as a collaborative venture and I am happy to change the posts if any of the musicians, don’t like their music being associated with the events here.
I have always written poetry. In recent years, I have taken to writing poems for friends and loved ones. These poems tend to be about significant moments in their lives and something about the poems not being about me, seems to make them easier to write.
The poems have been well received and very appreciated. I try to employ poetry as a way to understand my feelings towards things my friends and I can’t quite grasp. So when I read the above poem, that my friend had posted, it triggered something in me that let my own frustrations be released.
By both existing but seeking not to exist, my friend’s comments also seemed to connect with a Jack Kerouac Buddhist notion of nothingness (I think there is a moment in Dharma Bums’s, but it could be another book, where a character describes to his family that nothing actually exists). There is something important about avoiding getting in a constant state of fear, flight or fighting. Sometimes we have to surrender (more of a Muslim idea) and let the experience guide us.
When I applied this idea of surrender to my friends poem, it enabled me to liberate myself from my loss of self and start to wonder what the whole might look like if I just worked my way through the pressures of the experience, going with the flow as much as possible. A bit like the advice for surviving a rip tide – don’t fight it.
I wondered what the meaning of the post was in terms of my friend’s current life circumstances. My own pain got transferred over and projected onto my friends poem and life. And that helped me chose the title for my poem, ‘As If My Heart Does Not Ache To Complete You’:
As If My Heart Does Not Ache To Complete You
When you rue that you are ageing
I do not weep for you
For what is grace but agelessness
When you grieve that you are alone
I do not cry for you
For what is solace but loneliness
When you mourn that you are childless
I do not pity you
For what is growth but childlessness
Through grief, growth and grace
We learn to calm
The sorrows, losses and fears of our lives.
As if solace can not have an echo
As if grace did not know suffering
As if a child should not have our love
As if my heart does not ache to complete you
As if your words would not touch my soul
As if compassion could have no friend
As if love were a selfless act
I have struggled with my poem for quite a while, and tried out various combinations and the present word play may be too cleaver by half. I may have struggled with the poem because it is too early to process what I have been through. It may take years for me to come to terms with it.
My friend’s poem talked of the duality of the ‘warmth from the cold’ and ‘the partial from the whole’. And, there is no doubt we need other people’s care, love and affection when the times get tough. But, we have to be careful that our egos do not relish, too much, the idea that we can ‘complete’ another human being.
We may become arrogant if we believe ourselves to be the only solution to that other person’s life problems, and/or complacent, if we treat our significant others as if, with out us, they would be only half a human being. There is also an acute danger that feelings of nothingness lead us to fear the loss of the duality of knowing and conclude that with out our loved one we can not live on.
I love the phrase ‘duality of knowing’, it brings a warm feeling of grace, texture, care and understanding to my heart. The phrase makes me smile because it so chimes with what we have been writing in the blog over the years about ‘true’ love not being an act of control or manipulation.
There are great fears, at the moment, about the nature of domestic abuse during the crisis. Domestic abuse is about power and involves the crushing, obliteration or manipulation of another persons soul. The phrase the duality of knowing, enables us to recognise that in a relationship their should always be at least two sets of knowledges, identities and perspectives.
But, the phrase also makes me laugh because, the duality of knowing is always the source of conflict in relationships – when we can’t resolve the fact that we have different ideas, hopes, opinions or ways of being. This always raises the question, should we go with the flow?
It is very tricky to make such judgements but I would say that the impact of my own personal crisis has been to make me look more for the points of least resistance and to be with people who have a sense of flow that makes me smile with happiness.
There is a lot of meaningless stuff on flow and happiness on the internet that over emphasises the individual nature of our lives. Consultants and life-style gurus use the concept to put pressure on folk to hone their imperfections as if there is a perfect body and/or mind to be achieved. Such meaningless mood music makes a lot of money for the providers of life-style junk.
I have little time for, meaningless mood music that derives profit from other people’s suffering at the same time as it blames individuals for their own life problems and completely ignores the wider economic and political injustices that impact on our lives.
What we have to realise is that the external world places a huge burden on our ability to sustain relationships and my poem tries to suggest that we avoid blaming our selves for the predicaments that we find our selves in.
Hence, I felt such empathy for my friend, when reading their post, because I knew some of the things they had been through in their life and how hard it had been to find a financial basis from which to build a home. I could empathise because I knew how hard it had been for myself to find a basis from which to build a family. But, I also guessed that what I knew about my friends life journey was only the half of it. Hopefully, when this is over I will get to spend time with that friend and hear the remainder of their story.
My poem might have different meaning for people who have different life experiences. And, it is important that it does not come across as patronising. A single woman, a mother going through the the menopause, a father who misses his children, a man with many life regrets and a wise sage with grace and integrity, will interpret the poem in different ways.
The poem is more gentle if I think of it as coming from an older person looking back and, based on their years of experience, giving others advice: to calm their fears; to trust themselves that they are not alone; to bear their life burdens as best they can, and to endure until, at last, the ‘duality of the warmth’ returns.
This Gal Holiday song, In My Dreams Again, captures something of the gracefulness of an older relative who, now sitting with the ancestors, may come from time to time, to our dreams, to offer us, once again, a hand of kindness.
I was lucky enough to hear Gal Holiday play this song as a sound check in Edinburgh in a very old venue that befitted its story. The song just filled the whole room with warmth that resonated off the wooden panels.
I pulled on this song in the Hospital. I drew solace from the idea that when we have problems we can be carried thorough by our memories. And I learnt that during this process of being carried through, the nothingness requires us to surrender ourselves to dreams full of warmth and love.
Similarly, my poem is about the need to learn from what is thrown at us, recognise where we are ‘in the present’, to then be able to take small steps to a better future. Always remembering, that there is no such thing as the status quo and there is always a glimmer in the gloomiest of night’s sky.
In order to be pulled through, there is a need to be able to love our inner selves (including our inner child) first, in order to find appropriate ways to love other people, when the opportunities arise.
This idea of connecting with the best memories of your inner child is beautifully demonstrate in the Gal Holiday song and video above which enshrines a lovely understanding of the importance of duality (in this case between Vanessa and her grandfather). Such emotional resources are important when we are trying to work a way froward from traumatic experiences and when, in a social model sense, the world around us has put up barriers and road blocks that creates trials and tribulations for us.
My poem seeks to understand and provide empathy without suffocating its meaning with fake sincerity. The brutal coldness of the early lines, seeks to give way to hope, warmth and love. Just as, in the picture above, the brutality of the entrapped stones gives way to the beauty of the Scottish country side and the tranquil waters of Loch Levin.
My experience of being confined to a hospital bed means that when I am walking about or interacting with other people I see so much more than what is simply in front of me. I appreciate the emotional connections that brought me through my experience, as the same time as now possessing a lust for new horizons, warmth and happiness.
My poem is in no way intended to be a criticism of anyone who has chosen not to have children or have been, unable, through circumstance, to have children. Similarly, we have written previous articles challenging those who adopt patriarchal views and criticise women who do not have children (see link here). In particular we have pointed out the unfair criticism of Nicola Sturgeon, who, in spite of being a politician, turns out to be wonderful with children and manages to show her human side to them.
My own predicament meant that my friend’s poem touched me in the heart and I wanted to help that person in the way that other people had, recently, helped me. This wish to help seemed at first futile, but maybe if they are reading this article today, they may find some support from the simple fact that we can bare witness to and respect their experience and the lovely poem they posted.
By acknowledging/witnessing the importance of words like warmth and duality my friend’s poem enabled me to understand the importance of owning up to my feelings about what I had gone through. Some times, we find it very hard to show empathy, for our own selves and we get stuck in negativity and then that negativity prevents us from showing empathy for others and we go round injuring other people in what becomes an ever decreasingly bleak circle of destruction.
I have seen an increase in snippy posts on social media this week. Even examples where friends pick on other friends posts and I have even felt the pressure myself over the last 12 months to suddenly respond and call out folk online. In the most part, I try to use humour to call people out. But text, the typed word, is not a great medium for humour and my attempts at humour can get me into bother and being dyslexic makes it even worse as sometimes a whole sentence says the opposite of what you mean and then its too late for explanations. So apologies to those I have offended – we all have to do better in this crisis.
Similarly, I so often get confused with messages people send me and miss read them because of experiencing dyslexia – so I much more prefer a telephone call to a text or email when I am trying to clarify things or make arrangements with friends and loved ones. I have a close friend that lives near me who also experiences dyslexia and there is a humorous story about us trying to meet up in a bar in Perth where we both misread each others posts and went to completely the wrong place. We had such a laugh when we finally managed to get together. So I always ask other people to cut me a bit of slack when they are reading stuff I write.
My aim is to try to make a difference in the world and as I have shown previously in this series of articles, humour is one of the best ways to do that. My lesson from my hospitalisation is that we should not get so het up about changing the world that we injure ourselves or other people.
I still want to change the world but I am much calmer about that aim and will, as a result of my experience, have to find a different way to approach this aim that does not end up in me, once again, becoming burnt out. I need to protect myself, from ending up in the same place again.
My current state of health means that I am not in a great place to help other people. Sometimes, I can barely put my own socks on in the morning. So I am presently a bit restricted with what I can do. Which, again, is why I have put pen to paper and produced these articles. Writing (as difficult as it is) is all I am currently able to do to help other people and hopefully my friend can see the kindness I intended and is not offended by the reality of some lines in my poem.
In time, I am very keen to meet with my friend to see how they have reacted to my writing here, to find out how they are getting on in their new home and to see if I can offer more concrete forms of help.
Some days I feel really good and I can do a lot more e.g. my upper body strength has come back a bit and I can cut wood, prune trees and rake stuff up in the garden. If I have over stretched the mark with my poem, I am willing to do my penance by way of paint and brush or any other chore that will help to contribute to my friend’s attempts to create a home.
When I do physical activity, the pain is ridiculous but the activity lifts my spirits. hence, the pain is worth it. Just before the travel ban, I took a flight to Italy primarily to see if I could travel again. It was tricky but I made it – I can’t wait for the travel ban to be over but I am also aware that other people may never travel again, that the crisis may actually result in us being greatly restricted in the longer term and that I will be very lucky to be able to have the option of travelling when ever that day comes.
During this crisis when lots of people are suffering, I don’t want to come across as selfish but the irony that I’m grounded, confined and feeling lonely again exactly 12 months on, just when I might have spread my wings , does bring a rue smile to my face.
We shall see what the fates (SF) have in store, but, I am hopeful that, in time, I will be able to re calibrate my life, find calmer ways to offer concrete forms of support to other people and therefore, live up to the central argument of this series of articles; that we must all, collectively, support each other through this time of crisis and make a promise to our-selves that we will continue to do supportive and positive things beyond the time of this crisis.
My and my friends’ poems are deeply meaningful to me because they enabled me to stand apart from my feelings, to better understand my frustrations and to be able to find some kind of hope that I will move on to a better and warmer place. My friend’s poem enabled me to release the frustration I felt about the loneliness of my own experience.
I had to delay engaging with the full reality of my situation so that the pain would not force me down. I had to discount, yet embrace what had happened to me. There is a loneliness when we confront life’s harsh reality that, at times, no one else understands what we are going through and we do not even understand it our selves. It has taken me 12 months to begin to process what happened to me and I am still not quite there yet. Enlightenment, understanding and acceptance can be a very slow processes.
Similarly, my poem seeks to enshrine an idea that has run through all of my Don’t Let Me Die In Phoenix Articles; that, whilst we should attend to our own life issues and take responsibility for our own health, we cannot survive life and death moments without the help of others and that our survival is inextricably linked to love, care, grace, compassion, touch, comfort and generosity.
At all times in our life, we need to find the warmth with in the cold and even more so in the present crisis – so if you can offer warmth, kindness and generosity to other people, e.g. online or by telephone it may help to reduce the stress you and they are going through. And, if you are a friend reading this and struggling your self – remember to reach out to those who are just a phone call away.
As I write this post, the university systems are creaking with trying to adapt to the needs of crisis hit students. I am struggling to cope with the demands that are being placed on me but several staff members have noticed, reached out a hand of kindness and offered to share my burden – these selfless acts are helping to keep me a float and have given me hope that I will get through this to a place where, when the crisis is over, I can go off somewhere, hopefully a very warm and sunny place, and spend time licking my wounds and healing a bit more.
Hence, no matter how lonely our life gets, no matter how depressed this crisis makes you, we have to try and hang onto our best bits, our loved ones, our aspirations, our hopes, etc., until the storm is over. And, we have to be open to accepting help from what ever direction it comes. For example, a friend in another country contacted me recently and made an incredible offer that I will take up as soon as I can and I am so looking forward to getting over the stir crazy feelings I have at the moment and having fun with them.
I have spent too long cut off from other people over the last 12 months, the crisis brought back loads of memories and also fears about my own ability to fight infection which I have been able to work through and displace by writing. My eyes have been opened by my experience last year and I understand my own feelings of loneliness more than I did before.
I had a very strict upbringing which was mostly centred around adult regimes of punishment and shame-based standards that you could not live up to and that left you with the feeling you were not good enough. My response was to fight back. But, that means that sometimes in moments of strife e.g. when I felt the need to defend myself, I have lost sight of my kinder, generous and warmer self.
I used to go round looking at people and immediately registering them as friend or foe – it is a self defence mechanism but it closes you off and I learnt that there was also value in working with difficult people, who had their own scars and their own checkered histories. I found that once you got beyond the walls their stories were important and their ideas for change were meaningful.
In this time of crisis we must not resort to our worst selves – we must trust our fellow human beings, reach out with our better selves and work together to make the world a better place.
‘Forgiveness’ is another meaningless term that is abused by TV evangelists and life-style gurus who seek to make profit from our misery. Some people might say that I should forgive myself my experience. In a previous article we questioned ideas of forgiveness (see link here):
Yet, when stating that we need to move away from punishment, we are not arguing for ‘forgiveness’. ‘Forgiveness’ is a problematic word that is connected with religious ideas of penance and therefore can actually involve processes of punishment. For example, Alice Miller indicates that religious notions of child punishment have (in the past and present) promoted an idea that children need to be beaten e.g. if they are to achieve forgiveness, or, that children should simply turn the other cheek e.g. in the face of adult abuse. Most recently there have been reports of religious orders forcing women to face there convicted abusers within church settings.
Hence, the notion of forgiveness needs to be critically analysed. We are of the view that compassion, rather than forgiveness, enables us to recognise the context of decision-making. Compassion does not always require us to absolve (or forgive) people for their behaviour. We believe it is important for people to be compassionate when crimes are committed, because compassion may enable them to move from positions of anger and ‘stuckness’, into processes that enable them to move on from extreme life circumstances.
Similarly, most men have patriarchal aspects within their-selves and they need to be supported to find a way to give up the past, to change their futures, to liberate their selves (e.g. from their re-offending loops) and to connect with notions of compassion, empathy and understanding (e.g. for whatever core injury lies beneath their repetitive behaviours).
Alan Cummings in his book ‘Not My Fathers Son’ explains he had to confront his emotions about his violent father rather than allowing them to crush him. He highlights the need to talk openly about and acknowledge his life-experiences and argues that ‘not talking’ is a kind of denial that prevents resolution from happening (see link here). For me, not talking can be a form of violence, control and abuse – e.g. when deliberately used against a partner or family member.
Hence, my advice is for you to be very wary of anyone who is trying to silence you at the moment, any one who seeks to attack your world view, anyone who attempts to use silence to shame you into being something you are not and anyone who interrupts your sentences before you have finished them.
Not talking, prevents resolution and keeps us in a suspended state of anxiousness. Resolution is a tricky word, it does not necessarily mean having to compromise, sometimes you can go forward on the basis that you accept each other’s differences – that outcome can become impossible when the other person uses techniques of control to tell you what to think, to tell you what they think you think or to tell you what you think is, in their opinion, worthless.
When we seek resolution this does not mean we have to cave in, or that resolution can only be achieved by forgiveness (we can understand the context of abuse without accepting the legitimacy of that abuse). We can understand why something happened and put it behind us without accepting the legitimacy of that thing. As this Norse phrase puts it:
The Norns (fates – SF)
that struggling against fate
is as pointless as
rowing a boat against a fierce wind”
“fate was hardly more important
than what one did
with one’s fate”
In the hospital I developed a lonely acceptance that, under better circumstances, I wouldn’t have begun the next stage of my life’s journey from this place. However, I had no choice but to find a way to navigate my journey through the world of pain that I now experienced. Similarly, when myself and my wife we were going through the operations, we had no idea what the long term consequences would be for our relationship.
Illness is often described using words like ‘war’, ‘fight’ and ‘win’ but my wife immediately understood my predicament in terms of words like, uncertain, lost, alone, widow, house, home and children, words that related to the impact the situation might have on her relationships.
That feeling of, ‘I wouldn’t start a journey from here’, also sums up the look in my wife’s eyes when she realised, before me, that I had gangrene. The trauma of this most unusually extreme of calamities not only created a nothingness in me, it also brought about an emptiness in the eyes of my wife. She knew that there was no dodging the almost impossible place we were in.
The Yola song Faraway Look sort of sums up the look in my wife’s eyes:
This quote also helps to explain our experience:
‘But now that I know more details about what happened, I am less amused and more extremely freaked out. I wasn’t awake for all the scary parts of my injury, but everyone I loved was. When I finally came to, I could see the fear and terror still in their eyes, even after the worst had passed. I could see it in the eyes of my poor mom and dad, who sat vigil at my bedside every day after surgery, praying for me to wake up. I could see it in the faces of my brother and sister, who did likewise. I could see it in the faces of my friends and of my co-workers, who quite literally saved my life and were then informed that I would likely be hospitalised for months before I could walk out into the light of day. Not a single month, as it turned out to be. Months… (see link here)
My wife alone, no other loved ones, was there to physically go through those operations with me. I have always found it easy to support my wife through her life losses but, unusually, I found it very difficult to express my feelings to my wife when I was in hospital in the USA. It was a time in my life when I most needed her help but felt least able to articulate my need (not least because of the drug induced delirium).
I both dismissed and yet embraced her heartache. How wonderful to have a person to love you during such a tragic time and how terrible to feel the guilt of looking into their eyes to see the nothingness that you had caused. I found my lost feeling almost impossible to understand, let alone talk about.
It took me a very long time to make any meaning of this feeling and it wasn’t until I was having coffee with a friend who had had her own recent experience in hospital that she helped me to understand my feelings. She associated her own emptiness with: the assumption her spouse could not survive with out her; her inability to accept he could survive on his own and the uncomfortable realisation that this posed questions for her own sense of self and her sense of status in their relationship.
I am an incredibly independent person. Before I met my wife, I had lived on my own for many years and had had to survive the uncertainties of where ever life took me. I constantly moved in and out of different rental accommodation.
This included living in Northern Ireland during the troubles – where I met lots of interesting people. These folk included people who had been interned with out trial, who had been in prison for robbing banks and who were community activists who lived with the constant possibility their work would result in them being seen as legitimate targets by what ever side that was hell bent on delivering retribution and carnage.
These folk had all sorts life experiences and some had that far away look. But, in every case, I was able to build a relationship with them because of my tendency to be non-judgemental and ability to listen to their explanations concerning their life choices and the contexts that gave rise to those choices.
Until I met my wife, I always travelled light and could move what little stuff I had in a car or a taxi. With me in the hospital, I had one suitcase of clothes and a small bag. Apart from a few shorts and T-shirts, nothing much was used out of the bags. I took a lot of comfort from the fact that I had once again been reduced to that ‘one bag and a suitcase’ person. Yet, the circumstances where wholly different. I had no mobility and wasn’t going anywhere fast.
My experience in Phoenix meant that for the first time in my life, my survival relied wholly on other people, including my wife. Instead of relishing that experience, my independent male/disability studies side came out and I said things to my wife such as, ‘You don’t need to look at me that way, I am not a victim!’ Or, ‘Don’t do that for me, there are staff to do that’. Or, ‘You don’t need to show your love for me by being my nurse.’ or ‘I need a lover not a mother’.
But, of course, my wife is a nurse. I needed her, but did not feel able to articulate the way that I needed her. I did not want her to become my depersonalised medical nurse, I wanted us to be the same as we had been before. This wish was futile – nothing was ever going to be the same again about our relationship.
My wife’s occupation both helped and hindered our relationship (please note she has edited these articles and has chosen what is written here. And, I do not use her name in these posts because she is a very private person and has chosen to withhold her name).
Throughout the process, I greatly valued my wife’s professional advice, but, I did not want her to ‘myther’ me. It was tough for her to accept that I did not want her to show her love by providing my health care or acting like my ‘mother’.
There were limits to this no health care position, particularly when I got back to Scotland. I will discuss those limitations in a later post, but, what I was truly missing, in the USA, was her ability to hold me in the bad times – my impairments made this impossible.
We had always held each other when tragedy struck, but not this time. This video, has real significance for me, the lines, ‘I just want to be hugging you tonight’ – get me every time:
But, I couldn’t be hugged at all or held in any significant way. No duality, no warmth, no completeness.
Rugby forwards are good at hugging because they put their arms round their colleagues at every scrum and lineout and they tend to be huge guys who have loads of upper body strength. I used to be such a good hugger. I loved nothing more than to hug my kids every day of their little lives.
My kids are grown up and I no longer play rugby, I miss the physicality of those things. I realised, prior to going into hospital, that I had been suffering from a kind of tactile deprivation. I was missing the physicality of my former ways of being.
Though, from time to time, the kids would visit, the fact that they had flown the nest meant that I was now on low rations, hugs wise, and I was not coping with having to live off crumbs, as per this poem by my pal Christina Milarvie Quarrell:
Deprivation of Love ❤️
Make the grudging crumbs of Affection.
Appear like a Feast.
Before going to America, I had written a poem about loss that will appear in a later article. Little could I guess the loss of tactile comfort I was about to go through. So, without playing too much of a victim, think about what it might be like not being able to move for weeks and not being able to hug anyone properly for over 4 months.
I have only had one negative response to my articles and that was from a very unreflexive person who wrote to me that it was typical that a man in such a privileged academic role should, in this time of crisis, focus on romanticising his own pain and vulnerability, when so many others had more legitimate cases for recognition. Yeh, I know, there are some real dicks on social media.
My first thought was, ‘as if recognition is a thing that can only be rationed’. My second thought was that this person had clearly not read all the articles and had missed my earlier focus on the people, who saved me and my critique of my male approach to illness.
I asked her to come back to me once she had had time to read all the articles and maybe pause a bit to consider whether this article fits with her stereotype. As per the Alan Cummings section above, I can see where her perspective is coming from, I can entertain its veracity, but I do not have to accept it.
Even if her views were accurate, there is a hidden contradiction. We can not go round asking men to talk more about their health issues and vulnerabilities and then kick them in the teeth when they do so – its just so ‘male’!
The irony was hilarious to me, with out realising it, she did the very thing she was accusing me of doing. She was sort of the female equivalent of Piers Morgan – quite happy to throw mud at everyone else but never willing to explore her own self-entitlement, her own insecurities, her own behaviour or why she constantly feels the need to attack others.
There is nothing wrong with a little romance in the world, we all have an equal right to self-expression – and we must not let the current crisis stop us from loving our fellow human beings even when we find them so imperfect and dis-likeable.
Yes, the structures around us mean that wealthy people dominate the creative industries but, this person made a lot of assumptions about me, my history and my identity, from what appears to be a cursory reading of these articles. The lesson, as always, is that it is better to ask than to tell. Had she put her point as a question, I might have entertained her view for a bit longer.
Sadly, I am too old in the tooth to let such tantrums get to me. I have too much love to give to get angry and the support I have received in response to my articles has been so special to me. I will treasure it for ever – what ever happens at the end of this crisis.
This Eilen Jewel song, Here With Me, illustrates the deprivation I felt but also the importance of having people come to you: and lift you when you are lost in the melancholy.
If you were here with me
You would love the stars I see
Ancient city in the sky
You would love the way they shine
I know just how you’d be looking at me
With that smile that says, why be melancholy?
If you were here with me
If you were here with me
Even now, when friends hug me I am mainly thinking about how I do not fall over when they let go. There were times in the hospital when I just wanted someone to gently slip into bed beside me and take away the lonely fight that was going on between me and my body.
But, that hope for close human contact was simply fantasy – I could not be held in any significant way. There was little that could ease the pain and suffering – it just had to be endured.
At one point I lost my dignity and begged my wife to get in beside me. She refused giving three coherent reasons
- I was a two way infection risk (me to her and her to me)
- I had loads of tubes, dressings, blood etc coming out of me that would get messed up
- Her professional etiquette would not allow her to act unprofessionally; even though she was here as a visitor, she had never got, and never would get, into bed with a patient.
I can’t tell you how much I resented that last one. My life experience working with issues of rights, social justice impairment and disability, teaches me that the people we love become a part of our inner selves and that whilst we have to show humility regarding other people’s ‘need’ for us to be in their lives, the best course of action is to work out an agreed solution, rather than dismiss something out of hand.
I was aware that there was no point in arguing. My wife and I would usually talk through all our problems and then she would go and do what ever she wanted. She was, usually, a strong and uncompromising person and, over time, I had learnt to accept and trust that once she had heard my view she was entitled to use her own judgement on how she negotiated her and our life issues.
But, on this occasion I felt resentment because I expected her to work some kind of miracle and no miracle was forth coming.
Under stress, my wife and I found it difficult to do appreciative dialogue, and to listen before making judgements. This difficulty meant that we couldn’t navigate to new ways of doing our relationship. My hospital-based resistance and my desperate state led to lots of moments of sitting and not talking, which took more and more of a toll on my wife and me.
And when I did talk, the individual nature of my impairment, my treatment, my isolation, etc. was not easy to express. When I did have moments of coherence, my wife was the only person who I could express my frustrations to. As a friend recently pointed out to me, ‘a less compassionate woman would have run for the hills’.
The madness of the experience meant I lost my sense of time, a few seconds to pour a cup of water seemed like an age, I had little energy for talking, my voice was damaged from having a tube shoved down it for the duration of each of the four operations and I had no energy. Hence, all my words came out like I was complaining, you need energy and longer sentences to be able to express nuance.
I am not proud of the way I, at times, communicated to my wife. Equally,. the pressure she was under meant that she was not at her best and gave as good as she got. Our situations required compassion and understanding but there were times we both had nothing left. That is not a crime. It is understandable. But, it leaves a mark.
At the same time as I was writing this article, I watched a programme about Doddie Wier the rugby player who I had often played rugby against. At times in the programme, Doddie, who is confronting a life ending impairment, struggles with his emotions and there are touching exchanges between him and his wife. What I realised, watching the program, was that we have to let each other deal with our emotions in our own ways and at our own speed. My wife and I found that very difficult.
Doddie’s programme had me in floods of tears when, after speaking about his life ending illness to a crowd on the high street in Edinburgh, the people spontaneously broke into a rendition of Flower of Scotland. I cried because of the song’s line, ‘And We Shall Still Rise Now’ – held the contradiction that some of our friends did not, do not and will not arise again because death took/takes and will take them. Some of our relationships, also, never quite rise the same way again.
I watched Doddie’s program in December 2019 (I think). It was the first time I had properly cried since the operation. I cried again, shortly after wards, when I met a friend (and his wife) who is also fighting a very tough illness. I am crying now as I write this today just before posting. I did so because I had finally met someone who understood what I had been through and my friend and his wife showed me such understanding and compassion, when they might have been caught up in their own sorrows.
I was overwhelmed by their kindness. It amazed me how compassionate my friends were. I always thought they were good people. But they have certainly shown it by delivering such support in my time of need. The Shivers song, Beauty helps me express the beauty that when I was at my lowest, my friends reached out to me with love and helped me to mourn the bits of me that were left behind in the hospital:
I live off love
I feed off love
I breathe off love
I think of love
I drink of love
I sink in love
And in the middle of the night I need my love
I need to grieve and need to need and be in love
Some people talk about Doddie as ‘brave’. He may well be brave, but the guy I remember was as gangly and funny a person as you could ever meet. We don’t want to loose sight of that in all the pain.
I should point out that, in the off the pitch sense, I hardly know Doddie. I doubt he knows my name. But he does, however, know which team I played for and what position I played and who I played with.
Shortly after he finished playing rugby he was doing a small sponsorship event at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. I had gone to the Traverse to meet a friend at the bar. Doddie was standing, very restrained for him, at a table at the foot of the stairs down to the Bar. As folk descended he was offering people stuff from a sponsor (the sponsor could have been a beer company).
We looked at each other and he said, ‘Boroughmuir,prop!’ and then we laughed and laughed, ‘How the fuck did we end up meeting in a place like this’ – was the general thrust as we shook hands etc. Two huge guys, very out of place, in such a trendy venue. After the exchange, we were both much more our old selves, and it put me at ease for what turned out to be a great evening.
As I have repeatedly stated in these articles, it is important to understand that whatever your impairment or diagnosis, there is no shame in illness nor death – as both experiences come to us all in the end. As I said in a previous post, it is not how long you live, nor by what means you die, that matters. It is how you have lived your life that people will remember.
I would also add to that sentiment, that there is no shame in doing things at your own pace, particularly when you are going through what Doddie is going through.
Irving Kenneth Zola wrote:
It is clear that much has been achieved by recognizing that people with a disability have long been treated as an oppressed minority (Hahn 1984, 1985, 1986) and that much can be gained by using a civil rights strategy to enhance and clarify the rights of people with disabilities (Scotch 1984, 1989). On the other hand… …I have argued in this article for an additional, complementary strategy. Only when we acknowledge the near universality of disability and that all its dimensions (including the biomedical) are part of the social process by which the meanings of disability are negotiated will it be possible fully to appreciate how general public policy can affect this issue. Such a turnaround is easier said than done (Milio 1981). Thus, as Borgatta and Montgomery (1987) point out, to reexamine policy means to reexamine our basic values. There is a growing recognition from providers of service themselves (Katz 1984; Osberg et al. 1983) and designers of the environment (Lifchez and Winslow 1979; Lifchez 1987) of their role in the creation of past problems and their necessary role in future solutions. But it is more difficult to think of the problems of health, disease, and disability on a basic social-political-economic level. While it has long been recognized that access to certain health resources will be affected by social, political, and economic factors, it is less accepted that the very health problems themselves may be created (Navarro 1976; Waitzkin 1983) and even perpetuated (Illich 1976; Illich et al. 1977) by those same forces. It is thus no accident that medicine as an institution (Starr 1982) and medicalization as process (Conrad and Schneider 1980; Zola 1983) hold such sway in the 20th century. For the focus on the individual disease, the individual patient, the individual treatment becomes at the same time a powerful depoliticizer of all the other external forces (Crawford 1977; Zola 1972).
In the end, we are all disabled by the social, economic and political ineptitude of our parliaments. We will all face illness, injury, impairment and/or death at some time in our life.
Zola teaches us that ‘to re-examine policy means to re-examine our basic values’. If you agree with me that it is our life’s contribution to your fellow human beings that matters and not our status, then, when this crisis is over, please ensure that we have a politics based on the basic values of fairness, equity and love/care.
Whilst enduring my experience, I learnt that individual frustrations are pointless, we have to be very careful when we take our frustrations out on our loved ones and we have to show more compassion. Compassion and empathy can enable us to close the gaps between us and find ways to act collectively.
Compassion and empathy can enable us to value the duality of knowing, find the warmth with in the cold, and understand the importance of the partial with in the whole. Compassion and empathy enable us to support others when they seek to calm the imperfections of their sorrows, losses and fears. For we can say, do not think of these things (sorrow, loss and fear) as imperfections, think of them as the foundations upon which we place stepping stones that enable our journey to a better place.
In the main, I took the experience of my impairment as an opportunity to show my positive side. But, where my wife was concerned I have to put my hand up and say I didn’t cope with the change in status in our relationship. She also failed to cope with having the one constant person in her life reduced to nothingness. In the USA we became two very lonely people separated by circumstances, there was no crime in that, our difficulties were understandable but, in hind sight we should have talked more.
So if you are presently at home huffing with your partner, learn a lesson from me. Surrender to whats happening, communicate your feelings, avoid sentences that pick on each other or that are confusing. Remember that a small act of kindness can be the first step to closing the gap between you and can also begin to express your love.
So, be generous, approach your conversations with compassion, find a basis for mutual understanding (if not acceptance, forgiveness and resolution) and search for the warmth in the cold. Its the only way to avoid the nothingness.
In Doddie Wier’s programme, we learned he had taken the experience of a terminal illness and made it a positive. He had balanced out the medical model (funding research into the cause of his impairment) and the social model (funding legacy projects such as adapted pods that will live on and remove social and housing barriers for other folk after Doddie’s death).
Doddie knows his days are numbered, but he teaches us that it is incumbent on us to live in the best way we can, while we can. And, when we are gone, his legacy projects teach us that our good deeds can live on.
When we die our loved ones must continue their own journey as best they can with the solace that we led a good life. When our friends and loved ones die, we must live on in a way that pays testimony to their contributions to the world and what they stand/stood for.
We see this in the case of the son, of the father who died of the virus, who now campaigns, in a self-less way, to ensure others do not have to experience what he and his family has gone through, and, to ensure that his father did not die in vein. His father was one of the first medics to raise concerns about the lack of protective equipment for health professional.
Hence, whatever the life you have lived, there is no shame in feeling hug-less, loneliness, childless or old. We all have to confront and then value our life experiences, even if we do not accept them.
Currently, thousands of people are dying each day from the Corona Virus across the world. There will be a reckoning when this is all over. Inquiries, new understandings and changes in our ways of thinking. Governments will fall and, if we hold politicians to account, systems will change to be more equitable. But all that has to wait. The skill at the moment is to deal with the present, minute by minute, to find the light in all the darkness and to keep going for as long and as far as you can.
We keep going in the hope that when the pressure finally releases, we can breathe the simple joy of fresh air, sense the warmth of the sun on our faces again and feel, once more, the human touch of others.
And part of the ‘keep going’ process requires you to take a mental note so that we can hold to account those who were responsible for avoidable tragedies, pain and suffering. This mental note has also to include a memory of our own supportive behaviours and the supportive behaviours of those around us, so that we can tell future generations of the important lessons they can learn from this process. So that we can tell future generations, that we and our loved ones did not accept the political class that for decades had feathered their own nests, whilst treating us as expendable.
My mental note includes the names of all those people who, at my time of most extreme need, reached out to me with love compassion and hope. In what was the most extreme of life and death circumstances, they gave me a reason to keep going. I will never forget the acts of kindness and generously I experienced and the love that was shown to me.
My friends should rest assured that their love taught my inner self, who once felt unloved and unlovable, the he still has a place in this world; and that that place is in the hearts of others. The whole experience has taught me of the importance of our need to surrender to:
The duality of knowing
The warmth from the cold,
The partial from the whole.
But, I have also learnt that surrender does not require us to give up our own selves, become passive, dismiss our needs and put other people’s lives before our own. I am so looking forward to when this crisis is over, goddess willing that we survive it, and I can truly begin to live again. My life will be so very different to before and that will be just great.
Sadly, far too many people are loosing their lives and the virus is a near and present danger., when editing the post I heard the tragic news that a porter had died at the hospital my wife works at, leaving a 3 year old son behind. That child’s life has changed and he will require a supportive environment to grow, he will need to be loved and nurtured. Keep him and his requirements in mind as we go forward.
And also, think of this. I work with early years and family support workers who ensure that such children get a daily meal and are cared for. Not many people are mentioning them, (or the volunteers ensuring there is food for medical and care staff). There are tons of unsung folk going into work day by day risking infection to support others. I ask you to keep them in your thoughts. For all key workers and volunteers deserve our respect, support, love and gratitude.
This article has sought to pause from talking about the specifics of my post-op health care to consider the impact that my experience had on my relationships and the impact the Corna Virus is having on house holds.
The article has explained that I was unable to experience physical contact and I was deprived of the duality of knowing, the warmth from the cold and became the partial from the whole. It has explained that we have to approach loss in our own way and in our own time.
It has also attempted to use my experience to help you to understand the inhumanity of what those poor souls are going through who cannot hug their loved ones who are currently dying. I know from experience the impact of not being able to hug. I know that when you encounter catastrophic life experience you can lose your sense of self-other is long term and your life is never the same again.
Article 4 argued that we have lost sight of our traditions, our connection with the environment and our sense of the collective. This post has sought to build on that idea to show that the current crisis involves a loss of physical intimacy that will have a consequence for people’s future well-being.
Tune in next time for Article 6 for further discussion of the impact that my impairments had on those around me and the gradual process through which my wife and i came to terms with my near death experience. In so doing, tit draws from a nurses description of loss experienced in an intensive care units (ICU) to explain the need for more support of health professionals during this crisis.
You have been reading an article from the Don’t Let Me Die In Phoenix Series. Follow the links below to access the other articles in this series.