Rethinking my world view after serious illness.
Two years after I embarked on a series of operations and treatments at Guy’s & St Thomas’ hospital, Guy’s offered me a counselling session. I do believe in ‘better late than never’ but by that time, you could say that the horse had well and truly bolted (and left the meadow, as my friend Dave would say) as far as my emotional state was concerned. I wasnt my usual optimistic self.
I had one session at Guy’s. I sat in a hospital room and shared my experiences & new view of the world with the counsellor…. After making some slightly alarming comments such as ‘Oh MY GOD!! I’m surprised you have ever set foot in a hospital again!’ she declared: ‘Well. It’s clear that you have EXISTENTIAL ANGST.’
Existential Angst?! Sartre and Camus came to mind….’That sounds quite cool and Left Bank’, I thought, imagining myself as Jean Serburg in Breathless, looking chic and smoking a Gauloises (despite, at the time, having pig eyes and snot running down my face from all the weeping I had done during the session). ‘If I’m going to have a neurosis’ I concluded, ‘Existential Angst sounds good.’ I had no idea what it actually meant, but that didn’t stop it sounding utterly ridiculous and therefore totally brilliant. Always one to turn the smallest thing into a project, I decided to start my own faux society based on the counsellor’s diagnosis. Here’s the badge:
If you would like a badge please tweet me @LucePrints
I sent the badges to my friends who I met in hospital and left it at that. Recently, I gave one to my Dad as a joke and he asked me to actually explain the term Existential Angst. And…I didn’t really know what it meant (other than in clichés about the French). So I have been reading a little more and reflecting on the emotional state in which the trauma of surgery left me and others I have spoken to. Of these people, all that suffer from chronic health problems have had difficulty reconciling their experiences with the world view they held ‘before’.
I used to unconsciously hold the belief that ‘everything will be ok in the end’. I was an optimist. I thought that if I tried hard enough, things would ultimately come good.
That is not how I felt after I had surgery.
I think most people who have been seriously ill may take issue with the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ i.e. good things come from difficult experiences. In the first few years of my disease I still believed this and for many people, in many situations, it rings true. It’s a reasonable rationalisation if you go through a nasty break up and then say, meet the love of your life, or you fail an exam but then you really learn something about yourself and you do a different course and find an amazing alternative career. Whatever. That kind of thing…. It’s harder to relate to however, when you are on your fourth round of surgery, or after you have had several miscarriages and you don’t know why. That doesn’t feel like it’s happening for a reason or to teach you something. It just feels completely shit.
My good friend from hospital wrote to me a year ago and said that she still had trouble finding life meaningful: ‘I do think my illness made me more humble at times and [I am] better at understanding people having a hard time, but that’s about it – the rest is just a sad mix of trauma and misery.’ Her incredibly candid words touched a nerve. Life didn’t have the same meaning as before.
The Existentialists call this feeling of meaninglessness, the Notion of the Absurd. It is ‘the idea that there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it…..There is no such thing as a good person or a bad person; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a “good” person as to a “bad” person.‘ [thank you Wikipedia] But consequently, the concept of meaninglessness can be devastating…… So, the universe is completely impassive and literally doesn’t give a monkey’s about me? I’m not remotely important? In fact, I am utterly insignificant…!? It’s not such a bad realisation in our self-obsessed times, but it can make you, or certainly made me, feel utterly removed from the world that I used to be a part of.
Post-surgery, the things that I became preoccupied with were fun subjects such as illness and death, and the sub-topics ‘can I prepare for death?’ and ‘imagining my own death’. My husband said I was being morbid. But I didn’t know what to do with the experiences I had amassed. My world view had completely changed. I could still laugh about things with my friends but underneath it all, I was very different. Life felt strangely flat – I had lost hope.
My experiences had given me a new way of looking at life. The scales had fallen from my eyes and I now knew ‘the truth’ about life – I knew how bad things could be! As far as I was concerned, everyone else was in happy denial. I suppose I was coming to terms with my own mortality in a very visceral way, much earlier than many of my peers.
I wasn’t having existential angst. I was having an Existential Crisis!! What did it all mean…?! How could I reconcile myself with my new world view? How could I be normal again?
Let’s take a moment to look at one of 22 Dogs having an Existential Crisis
Darrell, I feel your pain!
So, I started my search for normality. I began by looking for a counsellor on the BACP website. I searched for someone who specialised in serious illness (a previous counsellor had tried to get me to ‘find the silver lining’ of my health problems and I really wanted to punch her – it wasn’t helpful). I found an excellent counsellor called Jenny Poirier.
Talking about my dark thoughts and new world view was really useful – and it helped me broach the subject with my husband. He was the one who first suggested I might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At that time I was reliving traumatic experiences from the hospital ward on a daily basis: having my surgery wound opened; coming round from surgery, fitting; having my stomach pumped; wanting to slip away into the darkness and no longer exist… You get the picture. I was starring in my own horror film, playing in a loop in my head. It was, quite frankly, a downer.
With Jenny’s help I was able to switch off the film-reel-of-awfulness and think about other stuff. I must say, not constantly imagining my own death helped me feel a lot more chipper. It freed me to move on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not now standing triumphantly on the ‘other side’. There is no triumph and I don’t think i’m particularly hopeful now. But I don’t automatically think about the future in terms of ‘worst case scenario’ anymore (well, maybe sometimes..) and I find happiness in the day to day. I know I’m lucky to have the life I do.
I recently took an online Existential Crisis Test. Obviously an online quiz isn’t the best authority on these things, but basically, I’m over it. 🙂