Post Traumatic Growth – Trying to Make Sense of Things

One thing that my friends know about me, is that I constantly think about our existence.

As a kid, during computer club after-school – after printing out a million pictures of Lil’ Bow Wow to add to my collage shrine to the pint-sized rapper – I then pretended to be a 16/17 year old on a Philosophy Forum (I was about 13/14). I didn’t grow up with books, no one in my family is interested in the human condition – in fact I grew up with the plight of survival – the art of just getting by. On whatever that was. Ketchup sandwiches for lunch because that’s all we had in the house, and the rent was due – and in massive arreas. But I constantly thought that there must be more. I would devoure and try to understand these philosophical ideas on time, and fate, and existence. Ultimately – being.

By the time I got to university, by myself, by my own hardwork – and my own investment and time – with some guidance from a few teachers that believed in me at school – I started to think that the shit that I had endured years of my life – was part of a destined path. An experience I had to learn from. It taught me about social justice, the differences between in having very, very little and having a decent amount, it made me know that society is unfairly distributed – the marxist in me. I thought that it was practice – to give me a sense of what it’s like – and that I had got to where I was (uni) so I had some tools, a way to help make a difference, using this experience in hand. I had – and still continue to do so – imposter syndrome though. I thought I’d drop out, that I wouldn’t be smart enough, ect, ect. But the complete opposite happened and I always quote my best friends at uni as the reason why I fell head over heels in love with art, with learning, with working even harder than I ever had before on this passion of mine.

I’d think of all the factors that lead me to meeting them, and decided it was fate. That I had acted in a specific way, met all these people- specifically for a reason. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have had a specific experience, they wouldn’t have helped me, ect. That it was kind of written in the stars.

Now, maybe it is – probably it isn’t. The logical person in me says – no way. It’s just coincidence and it would be the same outcomes irrespectively because I’m a pretty decent judge of character.  The person – which is by far a bigger part of me – knows that psychological this is some sort of coping mechanism. And that actually, every person brings something different to any and every situtation. And I know a kid from my background has actually jumped a bunch of odds, and so I believe it’s some sort of fate thing. But i know I haven’t got here alone.

When I fell sick. I couldn’t get out of bed. I think back to when I was around 24 – and I actually can’t remember that year very well at all because I spent so little of it conscious. I couldn’t reply to emails – I’d go to sleep at 6-7pm, and not get up until 1-2PM and I’d force myself to get up – I’d attempt some drawing commission work for 3 hours or so. Waiting for 5-6pm to come back around as a decent time to get showered and go back to bed and replay this whole cycle. Over and over. Every minute awake felt like I was being crushed, I’d have day-chills, nose-bleeds, nightsweats, and the worst pain.

I felt like I was going to die. I was angry, upset, in pain, why me? I had lost who I had spent so many years building. Smizz the kid who’d reply an email in an instant, who could juggle a bazillion things at once, who kept down and writing and who couldn’t understand why others couldn’t be as committed to making the change. I lost that. I had lost my identity. But it didn’t matter anyways – because was it even important? Crisis, or what.

But through my health experience, I naturally did what I had done throughout my life. There was some sort of reason why this had happened to me, surely. Just another lesson. I still feel shit, and I have a bunch of stuff that constantly keeps happening to me.  I knew this awful experience – throughout the healthcare system – meant that I could change it – even if it was just being there to listen to patients. My shitty health changed me.

Occasionally I feel stronger than I did before,  more spontaneous and open to new experiences and even quicker to laugh. I might still sweat the unimportant stuff – like ePortfolio, an exam, but I know deep down it’s kind of meaningless in the greater scheme of things.  Not that I haven’t struggled. I still have to deal with disorienting symptoms daily, and there are still days when I’m stopped in my tracks by grief. I still mourne the loss of the old Smizz. I constantly see my GP – like every few months, a plead with him that there’s got to be a way to stop feeling this fatigue, to stop feeling the pain.  Even so, I try and use all these experiences as a springboard.

I made the RADCARE radiotherapy Patient information app – which won an award. I won the Health & Wellbeing Student Award for Leadership, I’m quite proud that my patients seem to give really nice feedback about me to my mentors on clinical placement, I’ve drawn loads of stuff to help change patient experience, patient involvement, to engage people across the spectrum – from enhancing Prostate cancer care, to Dying Matters and the End Of Life Care Pathway, and now I’m going to Toronto – and Harvard over the next 2 months to learn more and bring back these experiences to see if I can begin to invigorate the pathways for better supportive care.

People always think jumping from art to healthcare is a jump. And perhaps it is. But I don’t really see it as that. In my many hours spent trawling through the internet looking for explanations, looking for things that can help with my pain/fatigue. I found that there’s a name for how I’ve built myself.  post-traumatic growth (PTG), a term coined by Richard Tedeschi, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Dozens of studies have shown that trauma survivors can change in profound ways. And it goes well beyond resilience, or bouncing back from adversity. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”

Whilst I still mourn my old life, how I could stay up later and was pain free -and ultimately more care-free. I’m not super sure I would change it on reflection. I feel wiser, I feel more emphatic, I know what’s important – my family & friends, I’m less of dick now, I feel even more motivated to get out there to help others, I’ve built the most unlikely friendships – even with my doctors – and working in healthcare has opened up way more opportunities for my artistic practice than I ever hoped to believe. I never knew that actually now is the time to be a healthcare worker artist!

now I’m not saying every bad thing has to have a happy ending, acceptance nor do you have to oozze rainbows and sickening positivity – sometimes I think that can be counterproductive too. I think it’s finding meaning on your own terms to give you some ownership to the shitty things that happen that are ultimately usually out of our control.

When I won the award for my app – I felt a huge massive amount of pride. Something I’ve not felt in a really long time. And I think it’s because I designed it – with my experience in hand – with my patients stories in the other – with my passion for making things and wanting to help people. I wouldn’t be here right now if I never fell sick and my life changed in a way I didn’t want it to. I can still barely see where I am going, I’m still amazed I’m still on my course, that I’m still alive. I think I felt the pride because i realized that to get here I’ve had to trust myself, to learn from my bodies failure. To know that I have the bestest friends and family behind me 100% of the way in whatever I do. Because, like I said, without them anyways – i wouldn’t be here now – regardless.

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