There are times we should bow to the reality of our illness


One week into my year of living mindfully, I woke without a voice.

My thoughts were muffled and seemed to come at me from inside some locked room in my head. Just as I began to make out what they were trying to say to me, I sneezed violently and they shattered into tiny fragments.

This wasn’t in my plan. When I said I wanted to live this year as though it were my last, I didn’t mean that it should be my last. But here I was, an over- heated, underpowered, shivering mess who could hardly see straight, let alone explore some new frontier of self-awareness.

Like a child bound to a strict routine of bottle-feeding, I spent the day making regular forays to the kitchen, where I boiled the kettle, tore open another sachet of Lemsip and stirred powder and hot water together with the consummate skill of a master chef.

During the day I retreated to the bed and listened to the radio as the US lurched steadily towards the cliff of doom. In the evening I lit a fire and watched the most non-demanding TV programmes on offer.

I was home alone. My children had returned to their own lives in time for new year celebrations and my wife was visiting her people in the west. So I could allow myself be carried on the wings of adventure by Walt Disney and Pixar without having to hide my tears at the cheesy bits. I also took time to sit, to be still and open myself to the present moment. But it wasn’t easy.

In the final moments of 2012, I lit a church candle someone had given me and set it on the windowsill. I turned off the lights and sat on my cushion. The room was bathed in the soft glow of candlelight. I said my goodbye to 2012 and expressed my thanks for the many good things that had happened for my family and for me during the past year.

The next morning I returned to my cushion, wrapped myself in a blanket, stared out into the winter dawn and welcomed the new year.

Somewhere in the silence, between letting go and opening to the new, something dawned on me: the most any of us can do is to work with what we have.

I was under the weather, but I could stop fighting with myself if I chose to. I could work with what was actually happening and let go of the illusion that things should be different. I could show a little compassion for the state I was in; I could trust my body to get well and let it be.

Yes, my legs were weak, my head was over-heated and I could barely hold my body upright on the cushion – but I wasn’t dying. I was warm and I was safe, so maybe I could lighten up a little.

And as I did, something shifted in the way I was feeling. I began to feel more at home in my body, more alive.

I looked at the dark grey garden outside my window, and I realised that it, too, was very much alive. The leafless branches on the trees were moving to and fro in the wind.

With the first hint of sunlight, I saw my neighbour’s cat poised to pounce on a bird that was hopping across the grass. I think it was a wren, because it moved in that slightly staccato way that wrens do when they are foraging for food.

I saw the funny side of my difficulty in accepting that I was unwell. I have always viewed my physical symptoms with suspicion. Maybe it is the curse of being a psychologist, but I feel I must always consider the possibility that my symptoms are somehow my fault; that they are the result of my failure to deal with something unconscious, something unresolved.

I allowed myself to bow to the reality that I was sick and to acknowledge my body’s need for care and patience.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health