2021: Lessons from Loss – ‘Never Give Up’

A belated Christmas, and a gift to myself – a cushion reading ‘Never Give Up’ to wake up to each morning.

Nothing is fully lost until you let go completely.  So, when the world is at its wit’s end, what do we have to lose?  There have been so many moments in which we’ve felt like giving up, where it’s felt like the day isn’t worth seizing, that the night isn’t worth seeing through.  We’ve all fallen to our knees and crumbled.  Every single one of us.  And 2020-2021 has been no exception.  This year has been so incredibly unkind and unforgiving.  But, as another year draws to a close, I wanted to remind you of a small message, told through a recent personal story of mine, a story of which has taught me the true value of life, love, courage, and most importantly, hope

From outside my window, the carpark below was illuminated by the weary shadow of the hospital’s exterior, concrete as still and as black as the sluggish night.  From outside my side-room door, opposite this window, a thin beam of light glared through the blinds, the silhouettes of nursing staff busying back and forth.  But there was nothing busy or in motion about my room, or myself.  For me, the long night had stood entirely still.  I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t process anything.  I couldn’t even cry.  Six peri-arrests had given me a fear of resting my mind and eyes, scared that I’d never wake up.  All I could do instead was stare blankly at the tiled ceiling above me, wondering when this eternal hellish ordeal would be over, sixteen months of hospitalisation, identity lost and outlook monumentally dead.  

    “Sorry”, I whispered, voice smaller than the nothingness I too had become.  “Sorry”, I shuddered again.  There was nobody else in the room.  Just I.  And yet, I was unsure who I was apologising to.  And so, beyond all the tears, the fears, the unfixable, and the pain, there sat my only other companion; silence.  

    I’ve said ‘sorry’ to myself far too many times this year, calling out for help, only to find myself in the abyss of another helpless void, a void every single one of us finds ourselves stuck within.  But ‘sorry’ is a word now of such insignificance, barely skimming the surface of any such meaning when so many of us have already been hurt.  Here I find myself somewhat incomplete, in a world that feels a little less full.  We question ourselves, over and over again, why we didn’t do more, say more, or ask each other, from a distance, where everyone we once knew has gone.  Were the ones we’ve lost the very people and things we should’ve held hands with, and taken across into the New Year, a new beginning?  We will never know.  

    I find myself entering a new-born world after disappearing off the radar for two long and troubled years, too fathomed to reach out when there’s been nothing else to grasp onto.  It seems that I have been confined to a sentence of sickliness, the kind that swallows up all your dreams.  But there is nothing new about this world I have come back to, woken only to silver strangers and opaque shadows, gnarled by wear, age, fear and loss.  As dark as it sounds, I can only think that this is what COVID-19 does to you, a great deal of my own trauma creeping back to then, awakening on Christmas Day 2020 to find, through the sheer teeth of pain and sharp breath, that life was suddenly hanging in the balance.  

    I had tested positive for COVID-19 just after Christmas Day, 2020.  I had barely been out since late Spring, bedbound and two-hundred miles away from family.  I remember the young woman, mid-30’s with three children, in the bed next to me, blaming me for catching the virus, and that I would now inevitably spread it to the rest of them.  I was moved out of the ward for treatment.  I felt responsible, disgusting, guilty, scared.  And very alone.  

    Contrary to belief, social media isn’t always what it seems.  We try to promote happiness, be advocates of positivity, when in fact, behind the concrete shadows of a solemn world, happiness can often be sadness, courage can often be fear, and strength soon becomes exhaustion.  And I am no different here.  From just the snippets of what I saw, heard and experienced in this time evolves images that I will never be able to remove from my mind, let alone talk about.  Of all those patients who were at one point sharing an area with me, only I made it out and onto the next corridor of life’s journey.  Mandy never got to see her children.  And when Ethel, a ninety year old with Alzheimer’s dementia, called out for her mother in the night, Dorothy, or Dot, Ethel’s neighbour, too called out, “Don’t give up love.  We’ll find her”, as she shivered in the shadows, not knowing that in this stillness this soon would be her last hour.  

    I have seen more death as a patient in one year than as a working medical student training to be a Doctor.  But in this period, too many of us were swimming around in this helpless void, unable to keep up, as the hospital drowned at its worst.  It was everywhere, and we weren’t swimming, we were thrashing, and sinking.  All three of them were sleeping soundly by the morning.  When the nurses came in, hushed by panic, all the curtains were quickly drawn and the windows pushed open.  It turned cold, like ice – a kind of cold that needs no explanation.  None of them, except I, woke up.  

    When I thought of Mandy’s children and Ethel’s mother, it made me think of my own Mum, as I longed so terribly to see my family again.  When I contracted a second bout of sepsis out of the seven I would have in total this year, I feared for everything I once had, all over again.  But, for the sake of my Mum, I vowed never to give up.  I slept with my phone under my pillow, drunkenly saying that I loved her, until I no longer remembered what I was doing or saying, or where I was, until an unkind agency nurse snatched away my phone one night, placing it far away on a cupboard, out of my reach.  

    By the time Spring had folded in and the mornings and nights were getting lighter, my health, motivation, energy and outlook were instead at their very darkest.  My thoughts were clouded daily by all the unanswered questions, and ‘why me?’.  The rock had hit the seafloor, lost of its line, and I was absolutely ready to let go, to give up.

    Trying to justify everything that I had been through, casting back many months on, I was only met with even greater confusion, regret, guilt, misunderstanding, and, well, nothingness.  It would be nearly two whole years of being bedridden, three hospitals, in and out of the Intensive Care Unit, seven lots of sepsis, multiple surgeries and procedures, so many lines that I would soon be left with irreversible vascular damage and no access left, blood clots, pulmonary embolisms, drains, bags, a wheelchair, and twenty-four hour, round the clock oxygen, that I really wasn’t sure how much more I could take.  When I was transferred to another hospital four hours away, the fear of another unknown ate into me so deeply that I felt sick and utterly worthless.  But I still smiled it off.  The patients on my new ward befriended me, taking in turns to do the coffee rounds to the downstairs café, making sure I heard the nurses and could reach my call-bell, all whilst I remained sunken and immobile in my new bed, yet another new home.  But when I returned to the ward after another brief stay on the Intensive Care Unit, my new friends had already gone home.  I cried.  I had seen so many come and go, but these people were walking the same journey as I.  I felt all their pain, all their worries, all their hopes and all their dreams.  And so did they, with me.  

    Very much alone once more, the long sleepless nights returned, in which I spent the stillest moments of the darkness sobbing into my squeaky pillow – a reaffirmation, rather than decision, that I could not bear this anymore.  I wanted to end it all.  

And yet, the doctors still failed to see how desperate I was, for help, to be listened to, to be cared for, to be acknowledged, both as myself and by the trauma of my experiences.  What they couldn’t see was that my frustration and anger was in fact sadness, that my tears were not incompliance but in fact grief, and that the thickness in my frown was instead fragility at its thinnest.  Shaking, I spent hours in the bathroom, after begging to be hoisted from the bed, only to sit there with random objects in hand, terrified, distraught and irrational, wanting to do something, but unable.  ‘Why me?’ I howled again.  How could it be that others weren’t so lucky, when I, though still living through this, felt so dead inside.  

    It seemed then that only the hollow outside air could clear the toxicity of my own thoughts when I could no longer find the answers at the bedside.  I will never forget the wonderful nurse, out of so many others, also so wonderful, who cared for me during that night shift, with such a beautiful soul and gentle words, as she said to me, “Talk to me.  What’s going on?”  It’s all I needed to hear. But I also needed to escape all of this.  It was the only alternative if truly, I wasn’t that kind of ‘ready’ to give up.

    So, on many a cold, late evening, I commenced upon this ritual of being helped out into my wheelchair by the nurses, making my own way off and out, to sit in the chilled rain just to the left of the hospital entrance – my home, where I tried every eternal night to escape my reality.  In the wet, my thoughts brought clarity to this broken self and broken world, trying to pull back lost time like the thread of a fishing line bedraggled by a storm, its rock-weight already wedged into the seafloor.  And yet, the gales still went on blowing.  

    Simply unable to summon myself back to the ward, long past midnight at this point, I did everything in my frittered power to stay away.  So then began the detours.  I was already at my most vulnerable when I was forced to question this catalogue of misfortunes even more.  With the long hospital corridor empty and blue ahead of me, shiny from the grey lights, clinical moonbeams bouncing off the windows like the inside of shipwrecks, I wheeled myself slowly in a dither, for one moment content that I was unaccompanied, for the very first time in a long while.  But I was not alone.  Chugging up ahead of me was a trolley, raised in height and draped in a waxy blue cover.  Another body-bag.  The two porters pushing this trolley, hid their eyes behind white masks, heads bowed as they journeyed on in silence.  Nobody had to ask to know what lay beneath the blue cover.  Then, just as I thought I was already too broken to break into any more pieces, I fled behind the grey dust of a broken-down elevator, into the triangular space beneath a staircase, where I wept for the loss of that person. That life.  It was there that I thought to myself, where possibly in this world is there any such hope left?  In this place where there is so much dying, yet too within an outside world where there is so much suffering, where lies the line where we once knew peace and good health in living?

2021 hasn’t been my best year.  Nor was 2020.  It’s been two years of the least adventures, least luck, and least fresh air to the face, weighted down by the breath of my own lifeless weakness; sixteen months bedbound in hospital, a then very brief taste of freedom, only to fall back into the despair of my past life once more, the hospital my home, that home my prison.  But, whilst it has lacked in everything else, 2020-2021 has granted me with the most lessons learnt, encounters that have prepared me for an entirely new dimension of life way beyond this pandemic – something I am very grateful for.  It’s been through the tears and isolation that I have asked myself most questions, and strung the most answers from the raw world around me that keeps on spinning, and living, regardless.  Along the journey, I have found those who love me most, and whom I love and care for most.  It has been a time where I’ve realised even the smallest stars shine brightest in the very darkest, and blackest, skies.  And it is through the longest nights that the most stories have been told, indented in the ink of the night-time’s storm-clouds.  With grief I have become most grateful, and with loss I have held onto the most precious moments.  Through it all, I have spent more time alone and to myself than I have ever done in my entire life.  Sometimes it has destroyed me.  Other times, it has reinvented me.  

    It is without question that trauma has changed me, indefinitely.  There is no doubt about that.  And I’m sure many others will be able to relate too.  I still struggle to find the right words to explain all these confused and fragmented things displaced in my mind and in my experience.  It’s as though the many letters of these words have scattered themselves chaotically across the many different months that have tested me to varying extents, troubled by my own inability to piece together all these happenings; unforgiving and uncalled for.  But, I have also come to learn that everything is a process; through living, through dying.  Without this passing of time, I would not be where I am now, in the state of mind that I am in, nor would I have come to know the many people who have impacted my life so greatly across this crazy, crazy year.  

    I have met some incredible people, yet I can only feel overwhelmingly guilty for not ‘serving’ on the other side of the bed alongside them.  But by consequence, I have instead experienced the sheer compassion behind all the stress, fear and helplessness of others; the porters whose names we each know and call from the furthest ends of the wing, the singing security guard making Christmas in the hospital lobby more tuneful and cheerful, the tea-ladies who know every beverage preference to the tiniest of detail, and deliver them with the biggest smile, the student nurses who go above and beyond, making up hot water bottles with microwaved saline packs, and plait braids as though it’s your wedding day, the physiotherapists whose patience is so forgiving yet motivating when you learn to stand for the first time once more, to the paramedics who make each and every journey less worrisome with trashy playlists, dad jokes and Starbucks stops, wherever you may be heading.  

    It got me thinking, in a world far beyond healthcare and sickness, that, in the natural world, everything has a process and purpose. Caterpillars would not become butterflies, storms wouldn’t become rainbows, and stars wouldn’t become brilliant supernovas, to make you believe that they really are the brightest existences in the darkest skies.  Where nature hesitates through these processes, it is the gap between the life you desire and the life you in fact have that makes up mindset, optimism, reality, decision-making, and a stubbornness to not ever give up.  These experiences, lessons, and the outcomes of our bravery and resilience will take us places, good places, where your own grit will build mountains, and your flow will create waves by the foot.  They may lead you through the deepest and darkest tunnels first, but coming out the other end, there will be the highest mountain, greenest forests, and bluest skies.  It is in the most unforgiving of times that we grow the most.  

    So, be proud of yourself.  Not just for what you’ve done, but for how hard you’ve tried, how far you’ve come – all in the face of adversity, that you remain here, on the tip of the junction to 2022, where, like the rest of us, you have not given up.  Your ability to say more, do more, thank more, and love more, will be built upon by those who can no longer be with us, yet still impact the motives and reasonings of our lives so much, so we can only feel thankful and blessed for the mark that others have left us with to follow.  

    A friend, whom I had become so distanced from, no thanks to the pandemic and ill health, recently reminded me that just because my New Year celebrations would not be how I’d wished them to be, it didn’t mean things had to be acknowledged on a set or certain date.  We are our own creators, own innovators, and own decision-makers, at the end of the day, hence we get to decide when to change, when we are ready.  To think that I will still have the time and opportunity to embrace all of the above sometime, someday, encourages me to look beyond into a more hopeful kind of future, even if the unknown of another health crash does bewilder me.  It is because of this that I am no longer scared of time running out, or if I have days where I feel like I can’t do this anymore.  

Perhaps the greatest thing of all then, is that I have made it home for the New Year.  I still await a hospital bed on the Intensive Care Unit for my next surgery, but for now, I am joined by the many thousands whose care, to no fault of anyone’s, has been delayed due to the new, same-old system of COVID-19.  Whilst Christmas was another weird and tearful occasion, not understanding why I wasn’t happy or thankful, as I held the weight of all these memories and burdens amongst the gift-wrap, I am grateful to be able to embrace this brief respite from a life and world that forever seems to test my mental and emotional fuel-tank.  I know that I cannot run before I walk, and I know that I cannot be a Doctor until I am my own nurse.  But I will keep pushing on nonetheless, because I know there’s a world out there that is far from giving up.  If there are still people out there fighting the fires for us – our NHS, colleagues, families, acquaintances and friends, then we can at least hold the hosepipes too, and taste the water just like the chilled rain.  

Some sort of intuition tells me 2022 will be a far better one for all of us.  But for now, I wish you all happiness, good health, safety and success. And oh boy believe me, hope and gratitude will always be plentiful, if we stay firm and focused on never giving up.  

Happy New Year x

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