This week’s post veers away from researcher development somewhat. Which, if you’ve read any of my other posts on this blog, might not be the biggest surprise ever. Still, since I have it on good authority that researchers are people too, and having had a few conversations with researchers about this over the last month or so, it feels like this fits here. If it’s not the right post for you, I encourage you to have a flick through some of the other excellent contributions by my colleagues.
I’m really grateful to the people that opened up to me and who gave their permission for me to write a little bit about our conversations; on a very selfish level, it made me realise that the stuff I’ve been feeling isn’t that weird, and I’m not (just) a miserable ingrate. More than that, though, if a few of us have been experiencing similar emotions, it’s odds-on that there are other people out there in the same boat, and, sometimes, just knowing that you’re not on your own can be helpful.
Pretty much all of us will have horrible things that happen to us during our lives – illness/injury, loss of loved ones, career stress, relationship breakdown etc. – and we all find different ways of managing them. That’s all part of being human. However, some of us will have a genuinely big-ticket trauma – something utterly life-changing – that alters us physically or mentally (or, you know, for LOLs, both) forever.
And then what?
Well, for lots of us, we’re told how lucky we are. And, well, that can be hard. Because, sure, if you survive an serious illness or injury, when the odds are against you, that’s fantastic, but as one of the people who spoke to me about this put it:
“Well, yeah. I get that I’m lucky. Not as lucky as all the people who didn’t have it in the first place, though.”
There is research to suggest that practising gratitude can make you happier, but being urged to “count your blessings” by well meaning friends and loved ones, when you’re struggling to come to terms with your new reality, can feel like a massive extra pressure that you just don’t need. Not to mention that you might be feeling a VERY long way from grateful. And that’s okay.
Forcing yourself to feel superficial gratitude can be unhelpful, and can prevent you from experiencing the authentic gratitude you can feel once you’re ready to acknowledge it.
The other thing that can happen is that you start to become very aware of all the people who’ve had similarly big-ticket horror, and who’ve responded to it by completely changing their lives – jacking it all in and disappearing around the world; starting their own multi-million pound business; running an ultra marathon! You name it, you’ll find a so-called inspiring story about it on This Morning. I mean, that’s awesome. Seriously. But, well, most of us have rent or mortgages and other responsibilities that make this impractical.
Nietzsche famously said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”, but it turns out that, actually, that might not be the case at all (sorry, Nietzsche). In fact, trauma appears to make us more vulnerable to future trauma. This probably doesn’t come as that much of a surprise to people who have survived a trauma of some sort; many of us have to claw our way back into the life that was once ours, but with more challenges and a depleted resilience reservoir.
As one researcher commented:
“I’m in the same place, doing the same job. I DO get that I’m lucky to be able to, but I also have no choice to change it. Everything takes far more effort. I can’t do any of the hobbies I used to be able to do, because I have to save my energy. And because I seem the same, it’s difficult for people to understand how hard it is. I can’t afford to reduce my hours or do a different job, but I feel such a different person. Every day is exhausting.”
This echoed a lot of my feelings after a serious illness; I was “lucky” that most people couldn’t tell that I was different, but that brings its own stresses. Add to that the nagging feeling that, having had something so significant happen to you, you should be carpeing the HELL out of the diem, when you can barely get done all the things that you absolutely have to do, and you can easily end up feeling like you’re even failing at being a survivor. Which is nice.
In his article, How to reframe your life goals after illness, Mark Schoneveld talks about his experience of re-examining his life after a cancer diagnosis. He says:
“Post-trauma life goals, like marathons and surfing, are best taken one step, one wave at a time. Illnesses can be so huge, so gargantuan. The war you’re fighting is multi-pronged and complex and the only way to beat it is to break down your process into small, incremental steps.”
The Tl;dr of all this, I guess, is try to be kind to yourself. Make the changes that work for YOU, take it slowly if you need to, and try not to bow to the internal pressure of being “brave” or “an inspiration” or of “doing so well….considering.”
I’m not normally a fan of the inspirational quote. In fact, they tend to make me feel a bit queasy but, in this case, I’ll make an exception. Basically: