Being ill, even a little ill, scares me. Not pain or weakness. Not even the imaginative person’s curse of hypochondria. No, what scares me is that illness disrupts the oh-so-precious, oh-so-foolish illusion of control. The illusion that if I work hard, keep lists, do my best, keep trying harder, I’ll get everything done, feel satisfied, stop worrying and receive only positive feedback.
Naturally, I never get everything done or feel satisfied or stop worrying. The lists are never complete. My best is indefinable. Feedback tends only to arrive when someone else’s worry or bad temper gets the better of them, and therefore to be negative.
Nevertheless, I persist in the illusion that any day now I’ll reach the point of being in control. And I know I’m not alone in this. It’s at heart an attempt to comfort ourselves, I suppose. But the effect is just the opposite. Because there is no control. Because the unexpected always happens. Everything is fragile, tomorrow it all changes, and life is beautiful and precious because of this, not in spite of it.
All this I would be the first to tell you, when I come to think quietly about it. But not in the thick of all the day-to-day rushing about. As long as this-and-this-and-this-and-this get done, it’ll all be fine, I keep telling myself. And every time a new this arises unexpectedly and one of the existing thises falls off the bottom, my heart and stomach turn over and a loud warning siren goes off, and then, if my energy and resilience levels are up to it, I do a rapid juggling act, redefine today’s list, today’s parameters for a bearable level of supposed control. And it’s all in my head, all self-inflicted, and I wish I could stop it.
Nothing wrong with making lists or setting priorities, setting realistic aims and trying to fulfil them. But they’ll never be more than indicative. They aren’t magical charms. Experience suggests that life will intervene over and over.
So, life intervened. Feeling sick and destroyed and lying down doing nothing for several days. And the deadlines and the commitments and the piles and piles of paperwork continued to arrive at an unabated rhythm.
I return to work and look at the piles and piles of paper and the overflowing email box. And I think: how do I get back in control? If I work three hours overtime every day, and all day Saturday and Sunday, how long will it take me to make up the 35 hours missed? And I work it out, and I throw myself in. And half way through Saturday I start to feel faint and weak and my mind shuts down and by Sunday I can hardly move, feeling quite as ill as I did a week ago. Did I really think the quickest route to recovery lay through merciless extra effort? No, not really. But I let myself be motivated by the loss of control which was scaring me much more than the physical symptoms.
Having got myself out of bed and back to my desk for a second time, can I try to look at it differently? Start from the knowledge that control is lost. Here, now, I’ve lost it, I’m naked. Breathe that in. Still alive? Surprisingly, yes. Loss of control can be survived. It’s a great relief, even. Teetering nervously in the gateway of an unknown garden where I’ve ventured only a few times, in the extremes of love and fear and grief that I’ve mostly managed to avoid. Could I, dare I, come here more often?
¶ 10:03 am
Who of us hasn't been there too? You expressed those oh-so-common feelings of panic and despair perfectly. And the expression on that bear's face... !