I have had an existential crisis. Following the accident that has had me bed-bound since New Year’s Eve, I have been in unfamiliar territory. Physically stilled, I’ve been questioning the very foundations of my being (a legend). Known to some as melodramatic, and yet to others as a minor meltdown, erring on the side of a mental health wobble.
My body and my mind have had a massive falling out. I thought I had a powerful enough mind that I could just think myself better: my body had other ideas. After several failed attempts to fix myself using mind control, I started to realise how fractured it was to get sulky and upset with my poor body while it did its best to repair the damage that had been done to it. I had to reunite body and mind. (They usually get on really well, except when one is calling the other fat.) I had to accept that my body was still the only one I had and hating it for how broken it was, wasn’t exactly conducive to happy days. I found peace the day I realised that no, my body wasn’t in a good way right now, but yes, I am still very grateful it’s mine and I still want to be friends with it.
Strip yourself back and who are you? Once you’re not what you do for a living or who you are a parent to, or what you do in your free time, then who are you? I’d never sat still for long enough to find out before.
There are certain aspects of my character, or things I choose to do with my time, which I had come to define as ‘me’. Being a little rush-about, having a diary full of social engagements – ‘You’ll have to book in three months in advance if you want a cup of tea with me!’ – that was me.
Sam Harris, Top Prophet to atheist spiritualists like me, says in the excellent Waking Up, ‘Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfilment.’ Ceaseless change was no longer my luxury. I had to find fulfilment in stillness, as stillness was all I had.Sam continues: ‘Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires have been gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain?’ I thought not, but now I’m determined to prove there is happiness available even when everything has turned to shit.
My husband says my boarding school upbringing has given me a predilection for punctuality. Leaping out of bed at 7am, I was always ready to smash the day. 7.10am: exercise madly for 30 minutes. 7.40am: shower. Etc. You get the punctual picture. It was with such precision that I found myself at my desk at 8.30 every morning ready to be brilliant at my job, because that was the primary way I defined myself – I was really good at my job and I patted myself on the back for all I had achieved from the shed in my garden.
And then, suddenly, everything that I thought made me ‘me’ was taken away and I was left with the bare bones of me. I couldn’t work, I had no energy or sense of humour. My glass went from half full to half empty. I refused to see friends because I was embarrassed at the state of myself, a vulnerable woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
That was my first mistake. To shut myself away, to decline visits from friends. I spent waaaaaaay too much time on my own, finding out the hard way that I like my own company, but I don’t like it that much.
By February, I was beginning to get my body back. I could descend the stairs quicker than a Slinky and sit without crying. I allowed a friend to visit and her sparkling wit and shiny hair was like medicine far more yummy than my Diazepam. She left me feeling buoyant and grateful to have chums.
Allowing my friends back into my life has been a total bad-ass serotonin boost. I have learned that my friends can’t fix my back, only I can do that. But my buddies and the positive impact they can have on my life is crucial to my healthy state of mind.
According to the excellent Action for Happiness, there are five unhealthy ways people often measure their self worth. They are all potentially hazardous because they can be stripped away in one particularly violent vomiting session, I guess. (They didn’t write that in their article, that was my own unique way of stripping away my definition of self.)
On the no-no list for measuring your self-worth is what you do for a living. Lots of us measure our self-worth by our careers, which make us feel valued. My career isn’t the only way I define myself, but it’s certainly top ten. It’s what I do and who I am.
Well hello identity crisis! No means to do my worky thing and I didn’t feel like ‘me’ at all. I realised that my career is super fun and I’m very fortunate to have found something I enjoy, but it can’t define me because without it, I still have to find happiness. I’ve been digging so deep to find that happiness without the usual things at my disposal, I’ve needed a shovel.
Says Action for Happiness: ‘It’s normal for your accomplishments to make you feel good, but basing your entire self-worth on your achievements is building your house on an unsteady foundation. You’ll need to experience repeated success in order to keep feeling good about yourself—and that’s hard to maintain over the long haul.’
Damn straight it’s an unsteady foundation.
Let’s lay some concrete foundations down right now, lest my house topple over. The trick is to measure self-worth by things you can control, not external forces which can be whipped away.
It wasn’t an easy ride. I’d sometimes feel really positive and determined that I could think myself better, then feel despondent when I woke up in pain and my body hadn’t stuck to its half of the pact. But realising I wasn’t capable of thinking my back better, I just had to let go.
I even started emailing myself happy little messages at night, to read in the morning when I felt most sad. ‘You can do this!’ I said to me. ‘Just achieve a few little things, then rest. Boom! xxxx’ Yes that’s right. Kisses. Maybe I went mad, or maybe this was the most wonderful gift I could give myself, a little kindness, a little arm around my own shoulder.
Sam Harris again: ‘It is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life.’ Rather than getting disgruntled that my powerful old mind wasn’t fixing my pains in a jiffy, I had to use my powerful mind to live alongside the pain, happily. Every moment of our lives, we have a choice. We can be grumpy and grouchy, or we can be grateful and glorious.
I’ve started appreciating different things. Rather than rush to work to bosh another day’s career, I saunter to work, slowly, when I’m ready. On the way, I notice the first signs of spring.
We’ve made it guys, winter is leaving. I see these little plants as my garden holding my hand through this mucky time and saying ‘We’re growing flowers for you!’ Each day these shoots rise a little higher and each day I get a little more agile, a little less pained. By the time there are actual flowers in my garden, I’m going to be entirely me again, but not the old me, orientated as she was towards dashing and darting around, but a new me. A slower, more appreciative me. I’m having Meditation Mondays, for Christ’s sake. I’ve had a veritable make-over, from bed.
And no, it’s not the Diazepam talking anymore. I’m weaning. This is straight up me, talking from the other side of my spiritual awakening.
One more quote from Sam Harris to leave you feeling that the world is your oyster: ‘The mind depends upon the body and the body upon the world. But everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of a bad situation – changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world.’ Whoa there, steady fellas. Did Sam Harris just tell me I changed the world? I think he did.
It doesn’t feel good to feel bad. But my body doesn’t determine the quality of my life. My mind does. It feels so much better to be feeling better, in mind if not in matter. Matter will follow, when matter is ready. No rush, my friend.