Q and A

Last month, I had to deliver a ten minute talk …about me.  My story.  It was part of the block weekend for the Leadership Programme I am doing.  The programme is about leadership in social change and it is challenging my thinking in lots of ways. I really prefer writing to talking (I know some of you will find that hard to believe!) and speech making isn’t really my cuppa tea.    But I started doodling, as you do. I doodled lots of question marks.  And then I made a real cuppa.

www.rachelfaithcox.com(11)

When I returned to my doodles, I stared at those question marks for a long time.  And it occurred to me that the best way to tell my story, was to do it using the defining questions of my life. There have been so many things I have wondered, but I pared them down to the bare minimum.
So! Here is what I came up with.

My Life, in Fourteen Questions:

I am a kiwi girl, born just after my parents completed bible college in Australia. My parents felt moved to work on the mission field in a third world country. So I was raised in Papua New Guinea, then I went to boarding school in Australia and soon after that, they went to China. These were the locations of my upbringing. In total, I attended 13 schools, four tertiary institutions and eventually moved back to New Zealand when I was 23 years old.

There were lots of things about my childhood that made me think.  And one of the first big questions I remember thinking, was:

"What makes us think our religion is more right than theirs?"

I liked to think about things as a kid.  And I started to notice other odd things about our world.  I noticed that when I was at the international school in PNG, there were more than forty nationalities of kids and everyone played together. Where we were from wasn’t even a factor in the forging of friendships.  But when I went home to New Zealand on furlough, people teased me for coming from a place where the women wore grass skirts and showed their boobs.
I was an outsider in my own country.
I began to think,

"Why do people have to be the same to be accepted?"

In my teens I became deeply philosophical, the way some teens do! The questions came thick and fast:

“What is the origin of thought?” “Are we inherently good… or evil?” “Is all this real, or just a figment of my imagination?” “Is life governed by fate, or are we self determined?” “Why are we here?” (and you kids from the seventies and eighties will relate to this one) 
“Are they gonna drop the bomb, or not?”
But these deep questions were all overwhelmed by a far more pressing issue:

“How do you pash?”

(Note to teenage self:  Mum’s historial romance novels were not the place to search for this information.  “She explored his mouth with her tongue” was a stylistic interpretation, not an instruction).

By this time, I’d been given the nickname Falling Tree because I was fainting a lot.
No… not because of boys (but there was plenty of swooning, too… I’m looking at you Morten Harket)!  I made it through my final year of high school and got into a competitive Journalism degree at a Sydney University.  I was ecstatic!

My well meaning Dad thought journalism would corrupt me, so I wasn’t allowed to do that course.  But a year later, when I reframed my University ambitions to encompass a career path ‘better suited for a woman’ I was allowed to go.  I embarked on a degree in Education and Teacher Librarianship.  Instead of writing words, I planned to surround myself with them.
But I wondered,

"Why does being a girl have anything to do with it?"

It took me seven years to get that degree (it was a bit boring).  Across that decade, I moved countries, got married, and divorced, and valiantly embarked on Project: Find a compatible Handsome Prince. There were quite a lot of frogs to kiss, so I used my knowledge of pashing with great determination.  Surely one of those frogs would be him…?!  And all of a sudden three wonderful things happened in a short space of time.  I found my man, we bought our first house and had Bee and Little Zed. All my dreams were coming true.

Then one day I got the flu, and I never recovered. Can you imagine that?  I was constantly dizzy and fainting a lot. But the faints were actually my heart stopping. I was fitted with a pacemaker to keep me ticking.

I asked a lot of questions during those early days of sickness, but the biggest one was

"How Long will this Last?"

No one knew.   Other parts of me starting going wrong: digestion, bladder and bowel function, temperature regulation, cognitive function, I couldn’t sweat properly, my pupils were not reacting properly to light, I had constant nausea and dizziness every time I moved to stand.  My blood pressure and heart rate were all over the place. I began to experience burning, tingling and numbness in my hands and feet, I struggled through daily chores. I had to quit teaching and we had to take in home stay students to cover my loss of income. The fatigue swamped me. My gait and mobility started to change. Every day was an exercise in pushing through. Pacing. Planning ahead.

I ended up in front of a neurologist who explained that I have a progressive form of autonomic nervous system dysfunction called Pan-dys-autonomia.  That covers all the automatic things your body does.  I know some of you here might relate to that. What made my problem odd was that I had it without a primary diagnosis. Dysautonomia is common in late stage MS and Parkinsons, aspects of autonomic dysfunction affect people with spinal cord injury too.  But the cause of mine was elusive. Six years of watching the progression, endless tests, treating the symptoms and fearing the decline and fall of my future led me to this desperate question:

“Can’t something be done?”

That question was met with averted eyes and shaking heads. Do what you can with your family now, I was told. Before you can’t anymore. I didn’t like that scenario. We embarked on a proactive memory-making schedule. A family holiday, the prioritising of togetherness. And I researched. My research led me to other patients overseas.  I listened to their stories, finally finding people who understood. I began to think deeply about the issues that face people like me.  People with ‘invisible’ illnesses, disability and accessibility issues that aren’t immediately evident. People with rare diseases or poorly understood diagnoses. I wanted to know what could be done for them, too. The injustices of all those lives lived beneath the radar began to burn my brain.
It led to this question:

“What can I do?”

I was offered some work writing for an overseas blog. And I remembered that I like to write.  So I started to write for more people, and even for myself. Blogging led me to ask many more questions, but for the first time I was beginning to see that it was leading me to answers too.  About me, about my purpose, and the beautiful, simple idea, that I could do what I do best.
I could write about it!

One day, I found a Youtube video by a specialist overseas who was treating patients like me, and getting results.  My general physician didn’t want to know. So I pushed and I fought and I learned to use my voice with sometimes, quite intimidating doctors! I kept writing for The Invisible and they began to respond. I wrote for me and began to take action. Until finally, I found a specialist who had read the same papers as me, who had seen the same video. He started me on a new treatment regime in January and it is so far looking really promising.
Fingers crossed!

And here I am, feeling better than I have in six years, embarking on the Be.Leadership Programme, and wondering

“Where will this lead?"

I know first hand that while we are all, to some degree,
defined by what our bodies can do and not do;
more powerfully, we are defined by
what we think,
by how we feel,
and by what we can do about that.

I think we have a responsibility to
help people understand
that our common humanity
is bigger than religion,
it is deeper than culture or race,
it is more practical than philosophy,
it’s broader than gender
and more timeless than life spans,
it’s our world’s biggest learning challenge
and it even transcends our physical abilities.

Those questions of mine have taken forty years to percolate. And I am just beginning to understand that they all point to the same thing.
That we, at the heart of things, have more in common than we don’t.

I am so grateful to have found an authentic way to connect my heart for social change, to society.

“How did I get so lucky, to have my heart awakened
to others and their suffering?”

Pema Chodron

Q and A
Q and A
Questions and Answers

Imagine

I wonder if you could take five minutes to try something.
It’s just a short imagination exercise.

Can you imagine.._(1)

Can you imagine what it might be like, to get a terrible flu?  And how it would be if that terrible flu never, ever went away? After one week, the patience of your partner wears thin.  After all, there are kids to look after and he is working, he’s not a naturally great nurse, guys are like that… you’re sure your girlfriends will have stories to share about their men, too, when you’re better.  You’ve a job to get back to yourself, you can’t keep on waking up, saying you can’t and shutting your eyes against the day.

Then imagine that being sick carried on for a whole year.

Fifty two of those flu weeks, end on end on end. The family needs you, so even though you still feel like you felt for that first week in bed, you get up and carry on. Every time you move the dizziness sweeps over your world as your body struggles to find some equilibrium.  You are bone weary. You adapt your usual tasks so you can do them.  Sometimes you crawl. You lean against any surface you can.  You avoid bending, or standing quickly, because that might make you faint.  It beggars belief how many household tasks require bending.

You take on less hours at work, but quite frankly, your boss has had enough. You, who have always been a perfectionist, have become an unreliable employee, your sick days are mounting. You talk to them about what is going on, but the doctors haven’t been able to give you any answers.  Your boss, your colleagues, your friends and even your partner start to look at you as if you might be making it all up.  Surely if something was really wrong they’d know what was up with you?  Maybe you are not trying to get better?  Maybe you are psychologically broken, somehow? I mean, it must all be in your head, you look perfectly normal. You doubt yourself. You quit your job.  Your relationship is under pressure. The kids are acting out because you are struggling to do your parenting job too. The years stretch out. One, two, three.

You’ve been in and out of hospital more times than you can count.  It is now clear you are not manufacturing the things that are going wrong with your body.  They put in a pacemaker to make sure your heart keeps beating. But there is an endless litany of other things wrong, too.  You are afraid of dying, because sometimes, it feels like you are. There are moments in the emergency department when everyone is buzzing around you and there is nothing you can do but shrink your self into a tiny observational dot on the wall. It is too scary. Your partner doesn’t even come with you to the emergency department anymore, it’s better for the kids. You taxi in to emergency, always with a bag.  You know you will be admitted.  You don’t know for how long. In your many visits to the hospital a picture is slowly beginning to emerge. You start to research the things that are happening to your body.  Something keeps coming up on Google.  The Autonomic Nervous System.  You ask about it next time you are in.  Chins are scratched, thoughtful silences. Referrals.  Specialists.  A diagnosis.

You’ve been sick now for four years.  208 of those flu weeks, end on end.

Can you imagine what it might feel like to get a diagnosis?  You are relieved, so thankful to have a way to explain what is wrong with you.  Even to yourself.  There is a thing that you have!  Now that they know, they’ll be able to fix it, right?

And can you just imagine your distress when you discover that the diagnosis isn’t the end of the struggle… just the beginning?  You’ve been lurching through a long distance marathon with the flu, you are exhausted, always waiting for the reprieve, the finish line, the bit where you get to stop and recover. They tell you that what you have is rare and it will be hard to find someone here who understands it, let alone who has ideas for treatment.  You research more.  You join online forums, patient groups, you read everything you can. You print out and highlight medical journals and read them, searching terms on the internet, desperate to find a way out of the maze.  You put forward medication suggestions, based on your research.  Every single treatment you are on that is working has been suggested by you. Even in hospital, you have to educate the registrars who come to see you.  It makes you feel vulnerable. What if you are missing something important?  You don’t have a medical degree, you are nervous when you know more than they do about it. You email research to your doctors. The nice ones might look at it, the others might ignore it. Much like what they’ll do with you.

Then you find a group, online.  They all have what you have. There is sharing, and laughter and illness related humour (yes, it exists!).  There is compassion and kindness and expertise.  Resources and empathy and support. You are not alone. The relief is enormous. You’ve been fighting for help for six years now. You feel a different kind of worse every day. Once upon a time you used to dance. Sometimes you struggle to walk down the street and back again with your cane. Your life is light years away from the way you were before.  You don’t know if you will ever get back to the fork in the road where everything went wrong, so you can step back onto the trajectory you were destined for. If you are honest, you fear you won’t.

You’ve been sick now for six years. 312 of those flu weeks, end on end.

There are worse things, it’s true.  Some people like to remind people like you, that you’re lucky you don’t have cancer. You’re not sure how comparing illnesses is helpful.  It doesn’t change your suffering. Your cardiologist once talked about how people with your heart problems are ‘functionally disabled’ and literature from the States talks about you having the quality of life of someone with congestive heart failure.  But that’s not helpful either. Your reality is you don’t have YOUR quality of life, the one you relied on, based your decisions on, built your plans on.  I’m sure you’re grateful you’ve got your marbles. Glad that you can still walk short distances.  Thankful that you can hug your family. Maybe you’d just like to enjoy those things without feeling like crap.  Maybe you miss the connection between wanting to do something and being able to, just because you can.

What if all the things about your identity, the things you knew to be true, aspects of your personality, the things you do, the way you get around, your career, your parenting, your partnering.  What if all of those things were compromised, because you got something like the flu and it never, ever went away?

Thank you for sharing my journey, for 5 out of the three million, one hundred and fifty three thousand and six hundred minutes I have been sick. If you can imagine how this is, please be kind to the people you know with chronic illness.  It is a hard, hard road and we need your kindness.

Can you imagine?