I walk down the wide oak-lined road, with white, three-storey houses set back from the street. It’s like something from Mary Poppins. My car is just down the road and I swing my handbag as I approach it. It’s been raining all weekend – an apocalyptic preview of the autumn which races towards us – but for now it’s dry, sunny and breezy.
I pull my sunglasses out of my bag and put them on. I’m in London. Hammersmith. MindReader had camping plans this weekend and, since I do not camp and never have, with a small push, I made plans of my own. Big plans, involving driving hundreds of miles and staying in strange beds and walking everywhere. It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing in a long time, thus proving that there is a lot of recovering to come after recovery.
And I chose an apt weekend for it. I was aware of the date, of course; I’ve been aware for months – been waiting to write this post, in fact, for years, and yet I always fell short. I knew I wouldn’t this time, though.
For today, I have been well – in remission, if you like – for an entire year. Not a single day off work.
I wondered how to mark the occasion, thought of buying myself some Champagne and having a private toast, candles lighting up the bubbles in the wine. But that didn’t seem enough. I thought I could go away for the weekend somewhere far away, somewhere I knew I would be well enough to drive back from – which I did – but that didn’t seem enough either. I thought that I could let it pass me by entirely, as a healthy person does, not counting on health, nor expecting it, just never thinking about it, and while that is definitely something I hope to do soon (indeed, I won’t celebrate every anniversary of good health), it didn’t feel right to ignore this entirely.
For it’s been a big thing. Three hundred and sixty five days is a long time. There have been new suits and 5am drives up the M42, the morning sky always a perfect autumn-blue, the morning air even in January, even in July, as crisp as a falling golden leaf. Lipstick was applied in work toilets, my hair coiffed at my desk before Christmas parties. There were many, many glasses of wine and cocktails, networking events with pretentious tiny food on tiny plates. I transitioned from thick dark tights to bare legs, experimented with silk scarves. There were in-house courses in other offices, trips to Derby, to Manchester, to London. Career choices were made. Late nights were worked. Two hundred lunch hours spent shopping or telling MindReader about my morning as we overlooked Victoria Square. And finally, lately, a mild surprise at any tiredness, needing 8 hours’ sleep a night not 10, an expectation of good health, not ill-health. Not feeling lucky, giddy, to be well. Just, me.
Just over a year ago, I was about to go to Bordeaux. My new work clothes were hanging up in my wardrobe. I’d worked out the commute. Found my degree certificates. And, in the July, I’d become ill again, and was absolutely convinced I wasn’t going to start. It would have only taken a raised eyebrow or a worried expression from MindReader for me to have picked up the phone and withdrawn. I rehearsed it a lot, as I sat with my iPhone in the bedroom I couldn’t move from. “Sorry, I am afraid I’ve become ill again. Next year, next year”. I could have deferred again like in 2008, 2009 and 2010. But I didn’t.
In my screwed-up head, I thought that starting the job would be stupid, and that I needed to do the right thing. Shouldn’t they be aware I was once again unwell? The risk they were taking? I would probably have time off; the odds weren’t good – had there even been three, six months without sick leave in the last four years? No. It would be career suicide. It would be stressful. Why would I put myself through that? I was ill, right?
And then we went to France and I changed how I saw things. It turns out, “trust your gut,” is useless when you can be irrational (and mad).
And I realised over the course of this dynamic, exciting, career-orientated year that I’ve had it backwards. Starting the job was not stupid. It was brave. It had just been so long since I was brave that I didn’t recognise it. But I had a fear, and I had to face it, not run away, even if the consequences might not go my way.
And ever since the realisation that I was thinking in a backwards way, I have realised that I have earnt this health. I can’t expain it. But I know it’s not luck. It’s been hard graft. As well as having physical problems, I had mad thoughts. I was a drama queen, a martyr, unreasonable, irrational, always frightened, living within limits. Now, I spend some time with people with ME sometimes and see them have the same thoughts I used to: surprise at good health, living by Rules they have made up, conclusions they’ve jumped to. I still can’t go running, but I was wrong about much of my illness.
Because bravery is a funny old thing: it’s not only the verbs – the doings. It’s the advjectives, too. It’s the how you do things. Doing things that scare you and worrying constantly is not brave. Bravery and being scared do not easily co-exist when you are talking about how to live your entire life, your every day. A friend once said to me, “It’s incredible how much faith plays a part in recovering.” And it does. It did. I had to take that leap, on this day last year, and believe.
And the Billygean who sat amongst the vineyards in Bordeaux and wondered, as she tentatively stepped off the cliff not knowing how things would pan out, would always have believed that the worst-case scenario would happen. And, a year on, there is now living proof – whatever happens next – that things do not always go the worst possible way, or even in an average way. Sometimes – often – things can turn out in the best way imagined.
And so now the time has come to move on from writing about illness. Indeed, how am I supposed to be well if I am always getting well? OldTutor advised me in 2009 to “write myself out of it, not write myself into it,” and I thought I knew what he meant then, and wrote a novel containing no illness, but now, as I reach a place I’ve never been before, it’s time to stop counting; the time has finally come to stop writing about it entirely.
And so that brings me back to my reward for my hard work; the scrutiny I put my mind and body under, the thoughts I’ve questioned, the honesty, the bravery, starting something which there was no evidence I could finish.
I wanted to have something I could look at whenever I felt tired, or scared, or whatever the opposite of brave is, and something to mark the greatest accomplishment of my life – something I did, something I figured out. I figured out what I wanted a few months ago, have been looking ever since. I went to an antique jewellers on Portbello Road and I knew I’d found the one:
My ring sparkles in the sunlight as I approach my car. I feel vaguely like people will think I have become engaged to myself (“It’s nice… But kind of strange,” MadFather said), but that’s okay, and kind of true. I am committed to my healthy self.