Peace

Peace: freedom from disturbance, tranquility

“There must be a quiet place where all is in order, a place from which comes the energy that overcomes turbulence and is not intimidated by it” Gordon MacDonald, 2003

A change in my life, which felt almost catastrophic to me at times, led to a purposeful and intentional search for peace. The search mostly felt like a struggle and during the worst of it, I felt overwhelmed by an internal restlessness that I could not quiet. Much healing took place, but I found myself in a place where I was unable to move forward in the process.

Whilst having dinner with a friend, she told me of her plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She would be climbing to raise money for a charity that supports children affected by war through which healing is facilitated by encouraging healthy relationships. I knew that I had to join her. I hoped that as I climbed for War Child, I would also be walking for my own healing.

Arriving at our lodge in Arusha and meeting the other members of Mountain Network and War Child’s group two, made what I was about to attempt a reality which was both thrilling and terrifying. In an exercise we completed the evening before we started our climb, it became clear that each of us was not only climbing to raise funds for War Child, but to remind ourselves how to engage in the present, slow our pace in life, free ourselves from internal and external limitations, be more mindful, lead our children better, find happiness and regain perspective.

To me, the group was unique in the way the varied personalities worked together without losing our individuality. We had a unified purpose which helped us to leave our egos at the entrance gate of Kilimanjaro National Park and climb that mountain with an attitude of curiosity and openness, not controlling the journey in any way but rather willing to be led.

Every expectation was exceeded and we walked down the highest mountain in Africa having experienced, learned, reflected on, freed ourselves from and absorbed far more than we could ever have hoped.

It has been seven weeks since we summited and I have realized how much I learned:
• Being authentic allows for a real connection as it encourages others to be their true selves too
• Accepting both the beauty and ugliness of our character and making peace with who we really are, brings great freedom and contentment
• If you look for good you will see it
• Encouraging words give unbelievable strength whereas discouraging words lead to hopelessness and feelings of failure
• Kindness without conditions or expectations is a beautiful gift to give and receive
• We place so much value on being like-minded, when we should place higher value on being like-hearted
• Being truly unified in purpose facilitates cooperation rather than competition
• We are limited by rules but freed by boundaries
• Fear narrows our world and tells us we can’t
• Yes, we can
• It is easy to become overwhelmed when we think about the entire climb rather than just taking one step at a time- we can apply this principle to our lives
• Being able to accept help rather than only being able to give it, shows strength
• Helping should never make someone else feel powerless even if our intentions are good
• Belonging shouldn’t mean losing our identity
• Although society tries to rank us, we are all equally human in our value, vulnerability and fallibility.
• We need to make time to recharge and regain perspective. This is a necessity rather than a luxury
• People believe what you tell them- we shouldn’t undermine ourselves with negative words
• Being thankful for the little things brings contentment and fulfillment
• We have to grieve our losses whatever they are. We cannot avoid or repress pain and anger forever. Trying to compensate for what we have lost with someone or something else rather than going through the grieving process will ultimately hurt us and others.
• Being fully present and engaged in our lives will gives us little time to dwell on the past or worry unnecessarily about the future
• The actual experience is as good as or better than the picture in our heads if we allow ourselves the freedom of allowing it to be rather than being disappointed that it isn’t the same as what we imagined or expected.

The experience of climbing Kilimanjaro gave me a new perspective. I came down that mountain having left the past in the past, feeling hopeful for the future, fully engaged in the present and at peace.

Recovery

Recovery: a return to good health after an illness or to a normal state after a difficult period of time

Thinking about what has been particularly challenging in dealing with a chronic illness and the associated difficulties, I realize that the recovery after being hospitalized is frequently downplayed. Not fully acknowledging the experienced trauma; not taking the time needed to recover physically or process the feelings experienced by the person who is ill, or the experiences of those people who have suffered because of my illness, has most certainly led to emotional harm.

There are many milestones on the recovery route. The removal of the oxygen mask or nasal cannula is usually the first step on the road to being discharged. In ICU, I always encounter the problem of shallow breathing because of the pain. More pain relief cannot be administered when my breathing is too shallow. So I need to be given oxygen. The oxygen mask is uncomfortable because, for some reason, it makes me feel as if I am suffocating rather breathing easier. If the oxygen is delivered via a nasal cannula then my nostrils become so sore that I have to concentrate on mouth-breathing which is exhausting. When the oxygen is removed it means that I am getting better. The next milestone is the removal of the nasogastric tube. I know I’m recovering when swallowing becomes painful and the tape securing the tube to my face becomes uncomfortable. The tube is usually removed within two days. As soon as the drip is removed, I know I will be home in a matter of hours.

And it is such a relief. There is usually great excitement and gratitude that I am being discharged. It feels as if the worst of the experience has passed. But that is not necessarily true. Getting to the car is usually so exhausting that I am tempted to ask to go back to my hospital bed. The car journey home is often frightening because the unevenness of the road and the pressure on my body when the car slows and accelerates is painful. Sometimes, I can only make it as far as the couch if my bedroom is upstairs and I have to rest and prepare myself to walk up the stairs to my bed. Eating takes so much energy and makes me feel such discomfort, that the anticipation itself is exhausting. But it is always wonderful to be back home with my family, my husband, my dogs and my children. There are fewer feelings greater than lying in my own bed next to someone I love and this is amplified by having been in hospital.

After a few days, I look less gaunt and frail and start to look and feel healthier and stronger. This, I realize, is where the denial starts. The suppressing of emotions that should be processed at this stage. Those close to me are dealing with their own trauma and it is painfully lonely because it is so difficult to be needy and needed at exactly the same time. Because the way I look does not always reflect how sick or weak I feel, there is some expectation that life can start to assume some type of normality. I cannot fully articulate the extent of the damage caused by this assumption. There are unexpressed feelings and emotions both from me and from those who love me. To tell you how much grief, loss, anger, fear and helplessness I am feeling seems as selfish as you telling me how much you feel those emotions. However, suppressed and unexpressed emotions don’t disappear, but rather become something bigger and less manageable, surfacing unexpectedly. To be physically sick and emotionally vulnerable feels impossible particularly since the seriousness of the illness makes those close to me emotionally vulnerable too. At the time, it feels unbearable, so detachment or the magnified expression of emotions in unrelated contexts occurs.

This is a difficult journey. The answers are not yet clear, though I know that my search is part of my recovery.

Brokenness

Brokenness: lacking wholeness

I’m unsure whether the term ‘brokenness’ is widely used in religious circles, psychological circles or it is a word that has become part of our mainstream lexicon. Regardless of the origin or the most widely used context, the state of brokenness affect us all whether we are broken ourselves or affected by the brokenness of others.

In “The Life God Blesses- Weathering the Storms of Life that Threaten the Soul”, Gordon MacDonald speaks about looking into the centre of our souls and facing the inadequacies there. This usually takes place during difficult times in our lives which MacDonald describes as ‘disruptive moments’-unanticipated events which we would mostly choose to avoid if possible. Disruptive moments of crisis are often associated with pain and inconvenience, failure and humiliation. MacDonald asserts that it is during these times that we are most receptive to the distressing truths about ourselves and the world.

It is during these times too that we need to make a choice. MacDonald believes that we can try and deny or avoid the pain or we can accept the necessity of walking straight though it until the end. But, he feels, that denying or avoiding the pain can lead to emptiness and is characterized by denial, defensiveness, blaming and escape whereas accepting the necessity of the pain and working through it offers unimagined growth and depth.

Tim and Kathy Keller in their book, “The Meaning of Marriage” talk about the difficulty with seeing our own self-centeredness as a result of our ‘woundedness’. The Kellers believe that woundedness is compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment. If selfish behaviour is pointed out, the response may be, “Maybe, but you don’t know what it’s like”. The wounds justify the behaviour. The woundedness makes people minimize their own selfishness. But they also talk about how only we have complete access to our own selfishness and only we have complete responsibility for it. The principle that needs to be put into practice is not to think less or more of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less.

Brennan Manning in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” explains how Christians believe that justification by grace through faith means that we know that we are accepted by God as we are. When we have accepted this to be true in both our heads and our hearts, then we can accept ourselves. Manning believes that the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow because love is a far better motivator than threat or pressure. Self-acceptance also means we have less need for the acceptance of others because we have an inner sense of security. We are no longer preoccupied with being powerful or popular and we no longer fear criticism because we accept the reality of our human limitations. It means that we feel less pressure to please others because being true to ourselves brings lasting peace. He also believes that the way we see others is often the way we see ourselves. And that if we have made peace with our flawed humanity and embraced our ragamuffin identity, then we are able to tolerate in others what was previously unacceptable in ourselves.

This concept of brokenness or woundedness is one that I have been wrestling with. And the pain that must be processed in order to have a chance of wholeness. At times, self-absorption and selfishness dominate, but the hope is that the process will lead to growth and depth, not so that I will feel superior or self-righteous, but so that I can be more gentle, gracious and compassionate. And that the message so simply put by Brennan Manning would be, “Yes ragamuffin, I understand, I’ve been there too”

Restoration

Restore: to give back something that was lost or stolen One of the options available to people with extensive uncontrolled disease of the colon is what is known as a ‘restorative proctocolectomy with ileal reservoir’ or a ‘pouch’ procedure. The aim of the operation is to remove the entire diseased bowel as well as to avoid a permanent ileostomy (bag). The operation is done in two stages by most surgeons: the pouch operation with a temporary ileostomy to allow healing of the surgical joins, and the removal of the bag and closure of the ileostomy site after approximately six weeks. During the operation the abdomen is opened and the colon and rectum are removed to just above the anal sphincter. A reservoir is made out of the small intestine. This is done by folding it onto itself and then joining the folds together using specialized stapling machines to form a bag-like structure. The reservoir is then joined to the anus using the staple-machine so that it will be possible to go to the toilet in the usual way. The purpose of the temporary ileostomy is to prevent the faeces from coming into contact with the staples during the healing period after the operation. That is the factual explanation of the procedure that I underwent. The experience of it was filled with emotion, pain and trauma such that the description feels incomplete. At the time of the operation, I was so ill that I was desperate for relief. I attended pre-operative counselling where everything was explained and I could ask any questions and discuss any fears. In reality, I was too overwhelmed. I didn’t want to be so ill, but I didn’t want to have surgery. I definitely didn’t want to have a clear plastic bag hanging from my twenty-six year old body. I didn’t want to give up my job in London, but I was a locum and my position could only be kept open for a short period of time. I didn’t want to give up my room in London, but my friends had to pack everything up for me and put it in storage in their homes. I didn’t want my family, my friends, or my boyfriend to endure pain because of me. But watching someone close to you endure suffering, cannot be without pain. I needed a blood transfusion because I was so anaemic. My gastroenterologist recommended donor blood from people I knew. I can never and have never adequately been able to express my gratitude to my friends, my family and their friends and family who donated their o-negative blood to me. The six pints that I needed were all donated within a few days. When my blood transfusion began in the ward the day before the operation, I started to have some understanding of what was to come and the frightening state of my illness. The operation was going to restore to me what I had lost. I would again be physically healthy and have an active and full life unimpeded by chronic illness. But restoration is more complex than just the recovery of health. Waking up in the intensive care unit after the six hour operation was traumatic in a way that cannot be fully articulated. Even though I had an epidural which had some numbing effect, I could feel the pain clearly and sharply. I was on oxygen, fed through a vein in my neck, hydrated and partially medicated through a drip in my arm, wires were attached to machines monitoring my heart and my breathing, tubes temporarily stitched into my body to drain fluids and a catheter for urine. Although shifting position would have intensified the already almost unbearable pain, not being able to move made me feel totally powerless and dependent on people that I was forced to trust rather than had grown to trust. I was asked to rate my pain when needing additional relief, but frequently could not speak because of its intensity. The nurse would assume that my pain was adequately controlled. It was a time where screaming could have communicated my needs effectively, but screaming is impossible without being able to take a deep breath. All I wanted was for someone I loved to sit where I could see and touch them all the time. This was not allowed, so that the staff could take care of our physical needs. But our emotional needs were therefore largely unmet. The nights were the loneliest and most frightening. The ever-moving shadows and noisy machines that could never be a background hum became menacing. The terror of being undefended was overwhelming, competing with the unrelenting pain. In reclaiming something that was lost, it felt as if something else was stolen. The beginning of physical restoration certainly, but coupled with a new loss that would require restoration in a different form.