When people talk to me about my traumatic birth and permanent stoma, together with the loss of my police career, I often get asked “how did you cope with everything?” . I have never really known how to answer this question, as I sometimes wonder, too. I was brought up in a family which was very much focused on just “getting on with it” – there’s no need for drama, just craic on with whatever life throws at you. But surely there must be a mindset behind this?
A Facebook memory from 9 years ago came up the other day, in which I had written that I was “reflecting on the catastrophic events of the week so far and concentrating hard on the words ‘life changed’ as opposed to ‘life ruined’ “. And that was it! Of course, I didn’t merely repeat these words, miraculously accept everything that had happened with a benign resignation and get on with my life. I still cried a lot, felt angry, felt bitter, hurt, let down and shocked. At times I also felt numb, grief stricken, lost and overwhelmed. But I do remember making conscious decisions on how I was going to approach my feelings towards my circumstance, as I knew that I had more control over my feelings than I did over the events that were happening to me.
I recall many internal conversations I had with myself, as I talked my way through what was happening, trying to make sense of the nonsensical, and to find a way through to a place of acceptance. Often I would start with a summary of what had happened.
“Ok, so you have a colostomy. That is permanent, looks most likely to be. You will probably lose your job. This is so shit. This is terrible. I don’t want to shit in a bag on my stomach. I want, more than anything, to go back to my job as a police officer, and to be going to the toilet in the same way as everyone else. But that can’t happen. So if you feel angry about the stoma, and about the loss of your job, both of which are permanent, then that anger will stay with you for as long as you have the stoma and aren’t a police officer…which is the rest of your life. And it will then be the anger and bitterness which destroys your life, and not the stoma or job loss. So really, all it means is that you have a different life than you had before. You have to find a way to live a good life with what you have, as that must surely be possible. You have to open your mind to other possibilities that are out there. So, you can either be angry, resentful and bitter, or you can accept that this is simply the way that it is, and look to see what things you still CAN do, and what you can still achieve.”
Sounds so simple, right? In the same way, I remember reading on various stoma forums, people saying that every time they looked at their stoma it was a permanent reminder of the terrible illness, injury or accident that had necessitated it being fitted in the first place. I thought to myself that if I was going to look at my stoma that way, something which was going to be on my stomach for the rest of my life, then every day of my life would surely be miserable. I didn’t want that for my life. I didn’t want to have that negativity. So I consciously made a decision to NOT think that. I simply would not allow the thought to come into my head. For example, I would be in the bathroom changing my stoma bag, and I would get frustrated at having to change the bag as perhaps I was rushing to catch a film. I would look at my stoma with fury, but at the same time shrug and think to myself that the sooner I got the bag changed I’d be back outside the toilets and having a good time. So I concentrated on what was going to happen once I had finished changing the bag, not what I was missing while I was doing it. I forcibly told myself that to regard my bag as a permanent reminder of something terrible would be counter productive to a happy life. Basically, it wasn’t going to get me anywhere so what was the point? With positive thinking you do have to work hard, you have to make conscious decisions and force negative thoughts out of your mind. It takes practice, it takes time but the more you push the negative thoughts away when they enter your mind in a given situation, the more your brain learns that the best response is to get on with things – and not to dwell.
I know for a fact that some people will be reading this and will immediately begin to beat themselves up. You will blame yourself for feeling terribly sad about having a stoma, or for feeling the gamut of emotions so many of us feel after a traumatic event. You might tell yourself that you are weak in some way because you don’t have this strength of mind to overcome negative thoughts. And so the cycle continues, you telling yourself you are different from other people, you are not as strong as other people, and that you aren’t capable of controlling the way you think about things.
The fact is though, that I am not stronger than anyone else, not really. I have suffered with depression on and off since my teens, and when I was 21 it was so severe that I took an overdose. I had a lot of counselling and of course I am now twice that age – I learnt with time and experience that there are other ways to look at situations. I have learnt the power of the mind to overcome problems, and the importance of not letting negative thoughts take over the brain. I used to worry tremendously about so many things, and then of course I had Sam and things that it hadn’t even entered my mind to worry about, happened. Although, of course, initially my anxiety went out of the roof, and I spent 3-4 years in a state of almost permanent hyper-vigilance, always waiting for the next disaster to strike, and never feeling able to relax. Gradually, it began to dawn on me that I was coping with the most traumatic events possible (other than of course the death of a child) and all my worrying hadn’t either prevented the events from happening, nor had it prevented me from overcoming it. It was a significant moment for me. I realised how pointless worrying really was. It doesn’t stop things from happening. And when terrible things happen, you find a way to cope. I would never have imagined I would be able to live a happy life with a bag of poo on my stomach as a medically retired police officer – this would have been the stuff of nightmares years ago. But there I was, living life and not finding it so bad after all.
I became more blasé about things, realising that things you think are the end of the world really aren’t. I learnt that to continue to fight against things out of your control is a waste of energy, and diversion of positivity. We are resilient and we can overcome. This attitude, of acceptance, and of not fighting things over which I can do nothing, has helped me enormously over the last year with the pandemic. I have seen so many people fighting against the situation, fighting against lockdown, becoming miserable and railing against all the things they cannot do. Of course, I fully appreciate that there have been some truly horrific, tragic situations, such as a friend whose dad was dying and who was unable to spend time with their family due to restrictions. I haven’t had to deal with any of that. However, I too have felt the harshness of restrictions, but my attitude has pretty much remained one of acceptance and hope. I know it won’t last forever. I know it’s not the end of the world. I know I can’t do anything about it. It’s easier to find ways to experience happiness than to fight all the time.
I have even managed to apply the same mindset to my traumatic birth and subsequent miscarriage. In the very early days I would often sit and wonder why it had happened to me, why I had been so spectacularly unlucky to not only have a premature baby, but also end up with a stoma, septic fistula AND lose my job as the icing on the cake. It is healthy to allow yourself to feel every emotion fully, to grieve for the birth experience you thought you would have, and to grieve for the loss of a career. It is not weakness to spend hours crying, to feel devoid of all hope and to feel completely overwhelmed by your feelings. I felt all those of things, too. Just like everyone else, I have bad days, particularly if I allow my mind to wander and imagine what it would be like for my child to have the sibling I lost in the miscarriage. I don’t beat myself up for these bad days, I just accept them as part of the natural process of overcoming a traumatic event. However, quite early on I started to question myself if I found I was starting to dwell, asking myself how I was helping myself to move forward if I simply stayed in the past all the time. A question I often ask myself is “but how is this going to help me?”. If the answer to this is “it won’t, and it won’t change anything”, then I consciously think of something else instead. I focus instead on a goal I want to achieve, or what I am having for tea that night, or what I want to watch on tv. I distract myself and then the negative thoughts are simply forgotten.
When Sam was about 4 years old, I bumped into a family friend on the street. She expressed genuine horror at the terrible trauma I had experienced during the birth, and with huge sympathy said with compassion “oh you were so, so poorly you poor thing”. I was grateful for her concern but at the same time I was uncomfortable – because I had moved on, I felt much better and I didn’t recognise the girl who I had been during those first terrible few months and years. I thanked her for her kind words, but smiled and said “I’m in a good place now, that was a long time ago and life is different these days.” I hope that everyone reaches the same happy place as I am.
I don’t pretend to robotically move through life, greeting every disaster with a bland smile, shrugging it off. I have learnt the power of the mind to move us forward, that’s all.