In the snowdrop season of 2013, my slate was wiped clean. This is something people wish for in desperate times – to get rid of the clutter that has been piled on their plates by some sneaky, catastrophic mistake – and start anew. At the time, it didn't appear as an opportunity; rather it was an illness that hit me like a sledgehammer and turned my world on its head.
I am referring to the condition known as ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis ) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Simply put, it's a set of symptoms with no known cause that shock the body and stop it from working as it should. Sufferers are often bed-bound with a fatigue far more severe than normal tiredness, and endure plenty of other baffling and, sometimes, alarming health problems. Sufficed to say it causes pain, discomfort, and makes people feel very, very poorly.
With little help or understanding from the medical profession it is a lonely place to be. You no longer work or have a social life, you can't pop out to the shop or go to meet your friends. You stay inside because your body has no energy to move, it has barely enough to breathe in and out and keep your heart beating. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Some days it’s hard to talk, to form words in your mind and produce sound enough to make them. All that's left is you. Your thoughts, your feelings. For all it takes away, ME/CFS gives you plenty of thinking time.
Before I fell ill, I was, it's fair to say, in a state of constant stress. I was halfway through teacher training, and would have rather been anywhere else. I was being bullied by my mentor, struggling in a failing relationship, and miles from family and friends. My brain was on constant alert; thoughts and worries boiling over like a forgotten stew in the oven. I was in a fight or flight predicament, and I had chosen to freeze.
My body changed dramatically, crashing overnight into bewilderment, under a heavy hand that slowed everything down. I could barely walk. It took a while for my mind to slow down too. With little company or distraction, it became preoccupied with combing over the details of my life to that point. I went over and over mistakes I had made, chances not taken, things I could have done differently. I compared myself to peers who had become happy and successful in a heartbeat. An ongoing assault of questioning filled the blank spaces in my head: What had I done to get here? Where had I gone so wrong?
Gradually, oh so gradually, I began to see things differently. I stopped blaming myself for getting ill and instead started to speak kindly to myself about how I might like to do things differently in the future. A bit like love showing up when you least expect it, I began to recover when I stopped trying so hard. Very slowly, I could start to hope that I might live again outside of the strict confines of ME/CFS. I knew I would never go back to teaching, and the feeling of freedom and relief that came with that was substantial. It was a happy time indeed when I started to explore counselling, and realised that it could be a potential new career. When I was well enough, I enrolled on an evening course; Level 2 Counselling Skills, and it was the best thing I could have done. I had also started writing fiction and poetry at this point, something which I longed to do but rarely had time for between the lesson planning, marking and PowerPoint making (never again, never again). I was carefully chalking up the empty slate, making sure it was to my liking.
Old patterns die hard, however. As my recovery was going well, I decided to take the next step. I got a job, moved out and went to live in a new town. My job is part time, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have it, and to feel well enough to do it. Yet it is in a place of education, the environment I swore to never step foot in again. I had forgotten that I didn't have to go backwards. Fortunately, I enjoy my job, love the people I work with and it has done wonders for getting me back on my feet. But how quickly had I forgotten the beautiful clean slate, with so many possibilities to offer? Similarly, when I applied to do the diploma course that I am due to start, (counting down the days!) I initially wrote that I would like to train as a children's counsellor. I was incredibly puzzled and concerned as to why my enthusiasm for the course plummeted while filling in the forms. It was only when I talked it through with my own counsellor that I was able to see I had fallen back to what I knew in my old life. Something in me was trying to keep a commitment to the career path I had begun pre-ME/CFS. Was this for safety's sake? Or was I trying to convince myself that I wasn't completely wrong to go down the teaching route? I have yet to figure that out. Whatever the reason, I recognised my mistake. I have since managed to change my course to specialise in counselling adults, averting another wrong turn and, thankfully, regaining the excitement I felt when I first started to learn about counselling.
When something dramatic happens in our lives, be it an illness, a bereavement or a break up, I think our first instinct is to challenge ourselves to live new, better lives. We seek to find the opportunities we let pass by the first time round, vow we’ll never settle for less. We want to improve ourselves. It’s a good message, and it is something we should strive for. Yet we are human, and like a strict crash diet, sudden change is difficult to deal with and most likely unsustainable. So I’ve accepted that there is safety in familiarity, and there is nothing wrong with that. I like to believe changes come when we are ready for them, even if we don’t feel all that prepared at the time! And if that gut feeling starts to swirl and tug you from your old routine, go for it, you are ready. If it doesn’t, then that’s OK too. All in good time you will become who you want to be, chalking up your slate as you go.
Kate lives and works in Northumberland where she is studying for a Diploma in Psychotherapeutic Counselling. She spends much of her time exploring the county's wilderness and coastline, and on colder days puts pen to paper. Follow her on Twitter @KateEveSmith
If you’d like to discuss ME/CFS or ask any questions, you can email Kate Eve Smith here
Find out more from these useful websites:
ME Association: www.meassociation.org.uk
Action for ME: https://www.actionforme.org.uk
Optimum Health Clinic: www.theoptimumhealthclinic.com