Getting your head around a challenging diagnosis, serious injury, long-term disabilities, or a major health trauma can be scary, as life coach Richard Blakeborough knows only too well.
I know that many Family Care readers live with the effects of disabilities, chronic conditions, and life-threatening illnesses, so thought I might explore some of the issues this raises for anyone in this situation and their families.
I do this with trepidation, in case I offend someone whose disease or illness truly is life-threatening or maybe even terminal. But I’ll take the risk because:
- As someone who has lived through and is living with a life-threatening condition (in my case severe coronary artery disease, temporarily relieved with bypass surgery) I am more interested in helping people than worrying about what people think of me;
- Few people want to talk about this subject, even though it’s such an important issue for them and for their families;
- Because the editor wants me to!
I will use my own experiences as an example. From the day the cardiologist told me I had heart disease, I started to realise that life as I knew it had ended; everything would change (if, that is, I survived my looming bypass surgery). Afterwards, nothing would ever be the same.
As I contemplated this over and over again, several things happened. I became depressed, I became more ill, I lost motivation, I withdrew from life. I stopped doing things. I stopped talking.
I also started doing some new things. I started drinking and lying in bed for long periods. I spent lots of time contemplating my mortality. And I started to care less, for myself and for my family. Why the hell not! This was not fair. I had been fit and healthy, and now I was really ill and just in my forties. I started what I now call a Pity Party.
As I reflect on those thoughts and actions now, I recognise that none of them helped me. Most were, in fact, destructive, especially to my family.
Fast forward three years. I still have the disease and I also have a different attitude to it. It was my disease that eventually led me to write a book, a goal I had suppressed for many years. It was the disease that eventually led me to the wonderful experiences I have had as a life coach and a coachee (if there is such a word). So what does this mean for those living with serious health or disability challenges, or those supporting others?
The best advice I can give is passed on from my cardiologist, and from some films I watched over the holidays. When I was told I needed a bypass and would have to wait at least six months for the operation, my cardiologist said “Richard you will be fine and get through this. It’s just that whatever goes on in your head will affect whether that’s a bad time for you or a good time.”
“Whatever goes on in your head" – for me this was all negative, making the experience of waiting for surgery that much more painful for me and my loved ones. Realising what was going on in my head during those months may have made it slightly easier for them to understand what I was going through, but wouldn’t have made me easier to live with.
My second piece of advice might have helped me three years ago, gleaned when I recently watched the wonderful film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.” And this is so true: if things are not yet all right then it isn’t yet the end and something can still happen, something can still occur, something can still change, thoughts can be altered until things are all right.
The last bit of wisdom I took from the film The Bucket List. Even though the characters had illnesses that could lead to their deaths, they chose to live as fully as they could, as opposed to slowly drifting into depression until their time was up.
So how is my mental health now?
Well, I still have the fear. I could still have a heart attack; my bypass can still become blocked. I still sometimes contemplate that it’s not fair, and I still sometimes have bad days of despondency.
I also have days when I reflect that the gift of my illness has been a new awakening for me that others of my age don’t always have. I look at what I've achieved since my illness that I wouldn’t have attempted before, such as writing my books and this column, and coaching other people to help them live happier, healthier lives.
The course of my illness is the course of my illness! My thinking can make this harder or easier; it can make it a time of triumph or a time of tragedy.
I have lived through both approaches and prefer being in the mental space where I think, “everything will be all right in the end, so if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end". Or, to quote the poet Alfred Tennyson, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield". I am not ready to yield!
Changing your thinking may not improve your physical health (although research indicates this is a real possibility), but could make a huge difference to how you live. As the saying goes, “in the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away”.
Savouring each experience as it comes is a mindset worth aiming for ... minute to minute, day to day, year to year.
Richard Blakeborough is a life coach and regular Family Care NZ contributor. One day Richard was a fit and healthy man, then his cardiologist told him he had heart disease and needed a triple bypass. His e-books, Life After A Bypass and That’s A Big Fat Lie Richard, chronicle his journey following heart surgery and subsequent departure from the corporate world to become a life coach. Learn more about Richard and his books here.