Recently I had the rare and shocking privilege of living in an Intensive Care Unit, or ICU, for three months. I was not a patient, nor a member of staff. I was there because my teenaged son became critically ill. Tim's learning difficulties meant that he needed his dad or me to be with him virtually all the time. I stayed every night for the first month, and then around five nights a week thereafter.
It had happened with frightening speed. We had been at home, about to eat supper, when Tim collapsed with breathing difficulties and an ambulance was called. Tim's resourceful younger sister speed-packed overnight bags while the paramedics administered huge amounts of oxygen.
By the time we reached the hospital, Tim was drifting away. He was put on a ventilator, then transferred to the ICU. Tim's dad and I sat in the waiting room. Fear. Waiting. Fear. And so, although I didn't know it then, our three-month sojourn began.
In this life and death situation, my choice, as a mother, was binary. I could choose love or fear. Love meant seeing the good in every particle of this unwanted experience. Fear meant resisting it. Fear would drain me of energy. Love would enable me to channel all my energy into helping my son.
I resolved to choose love. That didn't mean I wasn't frightened. It's just that at every point of awareness, I chose love. I decided to view the experience as a retreat, in which I would learn from the kindness of nurses and the alchemical wisdom of doctors.
During those three months, I learned that crisis means looking after yourself as well as doing your best to help others. Specifically, I learned the following five insights.
1. Appreciate and care for your body.
Of the three groups of people who passed through the ICU - patients, relatives and medical staff - the fittest group were the medical staff. They drank lots of water. In their spare time, they went to the gym, did yoga, meditated, cycled, danced, played tennis, rode horses, ran marathons.... They weren't obsessive. Chocolate and crisps were regular treats, especially during long working shifts. However, there was a belief that exercise was important, and that it might help them to avoid ending up in a hospital bed on life support.
2. Pause, breathe. Sit still in silence every day.
Meditation can be done among beeping machines, and it calms turbulent emotions like nothing else. Even in extremis, the mind can become clear and calm, like a deep mountain pool.
The first night, sitting with my son, I found it helpful to breathe in a silent 'I am here', and breathe out a silent, 'now'. It enabled me to ground myself in the shock of this new situation - to accept it. Consequently, I became a calmer presence for Tim.
Meditation enables us to pause before we blindly follow external voices of authority. I felt that, deep down, Tim resolutely believed that he could recover, even though the medical staff had little hope. So his dad and I chose to support him assertively in his belief.
3. Give healing when you are drawn to do so.
Call it what you will: healing, prayers, love. Just do it. You'll be in good company. A recent Gallop survey showed that nearly 90% of Americans have prayed for healing for others. A quarter have practised laying on of hands. Every day in the ICU, I sensed the presence of major disturbances in Tim caused by pain, drugs and fear. When I consciously directed love to him, it seemed to me that the disturbances lessened. At the same time, I sensed that many other people were praying for him and sending healing.
I massaged my son's limbs with lavender and sweet almond oil, and visualised golden white light entering my son's inert body, energising and healing every cell.
4. Choose uplifting language.
On Day 3, a time of minimum hope, I drew a good health mandala picture for my son, with encouraging words among brightly coloured flower petals and leaves. I wrote a note below it: `Deep down, you are healthy and well, and have the energy, determination and love that you need to thrive. I love you very much, always'.
5. Adopt a mindset of wellness.
As Tim thankfully began to recover, he was keen to leave his room and explore the hospital by wheelchair. We visited the maternity ward's pretty garden. We went painting in the children's ward. We danced with dementia patients. We circled a small peaceful lake in the grounds. One day, ten family members went for a walk around the hospital, with Tim frail but determined at the front. We also discovered a rehab gym, and Tim developed a reputation among the doctors for visiting the gym every day.
All these deeds created an impression around Tim that he was on his way to being fit and well. The collective thinking around him changed, from scarcely any hope to cautious optimism. In turn, that spurred him on to become more adventurous. In short, he was acting like a young man who, despite his disabilities, was used to leading an active, even sporty life.
On Day 96, Tim was discharged from hospital. Our family was so thankful. I now understand that crisis is a natural part of life. Sooner or later, stuff happens. Our challenge is to choose those moments, as much as the long calm periods in between, to live life to the full - however long it lasts.
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