Once the dust had initially settled from the stroke with the tests mainly done, the information came back that it looked like being a freak event. I found myself with the question of whether to tell anyone, or even who to tell. Everyone has their own personal way of dealing with poor health; some like to keep it private and their own battle, others like to vocalise and explore it. Both have their obvious strengths and weaknesses and I suppose, like anything else, we all find our place somewhere on this spectrum.
Keeping our problems hidden allows us privacy and to not feel a burden on anyone (something very British I wonder). Yet it denies others the chance to understand what we are going through and the opportunity to empathise with whatever fiery version of hell we may be walking through at that time. Expressing them allows a chance to explore with others and bounce ideas, moods and emotions back and forth. It gives others a chance to connect by then sharing what they themselves have suffered which undoubtedly leads to deeper understanding and friendship. However it also runs the risk of self-absorption, self-pity and insularity. I think for this reason, many people often shy away from opening up.
In the making of this decision I remembered a very powerful experience from when I lived in Fiji. We were part of a group that was running a rural eco-resort on a small island in the North. It was simple living and intensely community orientated. Fijians would rarely be alone or let others be on their own. This presented a fascinating cultural clash as we in the West arguably prefer to be on our own when we are unable to cope anymore (maybe protecting our own pride in not appearing strong enough?). On countless occasions I saw Fijians instinctively drop what they were doing to comfort each other or at the very least go and sit silently next to a friend who they saw to be suffering.
On one particular occasion we were invited by a nearby village as part of a healing evening. This was a ritual done when members of the community had fallen on hard times and the village would come together to support them. In this case it was for a man who was chronically ill and bed bound. The evening was designed so that small groups of us would visit his house in turns, bring basic supplies for food and then sit and be with him for an hour or so. As is Fijian culture the sitting would involve a mixture of prayer and then drinking Kava (a local root crushed up and mixed with water). The guitars would then come out and we would pass the time singing, laughing, storytelling and socialising in the house of the afflicted man. Then our time would be up, we'd pay our final respects and leave. Then the next group would arrive.
It was a beautiful tradition and one that really had an impact on me. The atmosphere of love and support in that mans' house was a wonderful experience. The Fijians asked nothing of the man who was ill, simply to be in his presence. It was incredibly moving and made me really reflect on what I would do in a similar situation.
In this case I felt that what had happened to me was 'news worthy' enough to share and I wanted people to know. I felt that if someone close to me was going through a difficult experience, I'd be sad not to be involved. Yet part of me felt nervous about this. What if people did not care? What if I had overblown it? What if it was more befitting to suffer this in silence?
I took out my phone and sent the first of several texts. I wanted to share this, I wanted people I cared about to know. I did not want to be on my own.
What came back was phenomenal. The level of love, concern and support was utterly overwhelming. How easy is it to sometimes fall into the inviting trap that people do not care about us, especially if we haven't heard from them for a while. This is, of course, not true as we all have increasingly busy lives and are not always able to be in constant contact with one another. But I learnt a valuable lesson in all this, if we allow people to care, they probably will. And if we drop our guard, we might even take our relationships with others (and ourselves) to a level we never dreamt of.
Individuality and the cult of 'doing it on my own' is intensely valued in this part of the world. More and more we are told to believe that we can sculpt our destinies, lives, careers and even bodies to what we want. As though there is some sort of heroism in achieving things without anyone else. Letting others help is almost an admission of weakness. We struggle on, wanting to appear strong and capable to the world around us, sharing our carefully edited victories and burying our failures. (Facebook anyone?). Yet all this does is deny the reality of who we are as human beings. We only ever give half the picture, not only to the watching masses but also, and very crucially, to our own inner world. We seem to chase a life of eternal sunlight and keep all artificial lamps burning when the darkness comes, regardless the cost.
There seems a deep irony in human behaviour that even though we chase strength in order to be loved and accepted, it is through vulnerability that our truest relationships are formed. Those who always win and are seemingly 'bullet proof' are actually impossible to get near and connect with (I am and have been particularly guilty of this). This can become a dangerous habit (public applause being so seductive) that leads to a life of hollow, superficial success filled with emotional isolation and loneliness.
I know from personal experience that most, if not all, of my strengths are actually built on top of my own shaky ground of that which I fear, am probably uncertain about and what I do not understand about myself. So often have I been motivated to succeed, not out of purity of experience, but actually to protect myself from menacing and unpleasant voices that lurk within.
Vulnerability seems increasingly relevant to a happy and connected life. The moment when we stop pretending that we can do it all and let others share in our successes and failures, the richer and more depth life seems to take on. I would not suggest for a minute that this is easy, but then what of any value is?
It struck me from those who visited, the good wishes and kind phone calls, how much a part of the healing process all these amazing people were. Hearing their voices and feeling their concern was both uplifting and humbling. Interestingly this also offered an opportunity for them to share their own struggles and what was not quite working out for them at that time. These very real conversations gave us all a chance to further our friendships and open up new spaces that we could exist in and grow together.
Sharing each other's burdens led to an honesty of interaction, with a strong sense of community and experience. It helped give me perspective on what I was going through and that, most importantly; I was not the only person in the world suffering right now.
In many ways we were all healing each other, by being brave and honest about whom we actually were.