19th February 2018

Politics and our health

When our health, politics and society experience uncertainty at the same time.

Uncertainty in politics and health evoke similar feelings. For example, as the fall out of Brexit in the UK and elsewhere continues, life refuses to feel normal.

I can’t help thinking, I am glad this did not happen, when I was undergoing cancer treatment.

Why? Too much confusion and uncertainty, when I was at my most vulnerable, would have been too much to handle. My sense of time and belonging had also changed dramatically.

Both politics and health are about power, control, identification, beliefs and values.

When things go well in society, in our personal life and with our health, then we may feel positive, engaged, connected, empowered, safe and trusting.

When things are difficult we may feel disengaged, disempowered, isolated, frightened and angry, mistrusting. We may give up and pull out or we may struggle on in the hope of pulling through.

When we are affected by a life changing health condition or illness like cancer, we are confronted, often without little preparation or transition, with an enormous change and uncertainty.

The life we have had will never be the same again. Life continues, but we don’t, at least not in the same way.

There is loss and grief, confusion, anger, fear and we feel very alone.

It feels like we have lost control and power and have little say in what happens next.

None of this is linear or happens in nice predictable steps, or to all people in the same way. The experience and journey is individual, but overall these are the themes of what we are dealing with.

In all this personal chaos, it is important to retain at least some certainty, predictability and transparency. We need that to stay sane and strong to hold on to some hope or at least to be strong enough to face the brutal reality of our health and life in crisis.

A little bit of a daily routine, friends and family that stay by our side, or go out of our way and stop causing stress. The last thing we need, when all is broken, is to have conflict, frustrations and stress and more uncertainty.

So what is it like to be in a health crisis like cancer, when history is made? When a country is rocked by uncertainty, and unpleasant things start happening?

Irrespective of our political leanings and backgrounds, we all will have a shared experience of being impacted by the implementation and consequences of political and social change, cancer or no cancer. A period of uncertainty lies ahead for all of us.

When the society we live in is at the cusp of substantial change, then uncertainty, vulnerabiliy and a sense of loss happen across the whole spectrum of our being on a micro and macro level, in our bodies, in our homes, and in our world at large. That can be hugely distabilising and add more weight to our vulnerability.

While we may feel impacted by these uncertain times in our society at large, we may also have a strange shift in our own sense of time. With cancer or other life-changing health conditions, time is often closely linked to a permanent sense of anticipation and fear.

We might not dwell on it too much,  but it is always there: the moment to moment anticipation of treatment side effects, of new symptoms or of a deterioration in our quality of life and the constant possibility of death. I know, the latter is a reality for us all. But with some illnesses it feels like we have jumped the queue big time.

Living in uncertain times like ours now, might faze you, or not. If you are affected by cancer, then you may either have developed a really high threshold for putting up with uncertainty, or you may be highly sensitive to anything that is or could be invasive, causes stress and anxiety – like uncertainty.

For me, cancer changed my sense of time and the way I need to deal with uncertainty.

My sense of time and of myself changed in different ways across the different stages of my cancer experience

Time stood still, the second the diagnosis bubble burst:

  • The time that did matter were the treatment days I crossed off religiously, every day.
  • While I was highly sensitive to what was going on around me, I also felt mentally and emotionally cut off from relationships, society and the world, including politics and wider social affairs.
  • My own history no longer mattered, neither did my abilities, achievements or failures and weaknesses.
  • All that mattered had been reduced to the most basic of bodily and mental functions and needs.

After treatment, it was hard to claim back my place in society.

  • It took rebuilding self confidence, self worth, trust and hope.
  • It took rigorous prioritisation of many aspects of my life, such as relationships, work, my values.
  • I had to figure out what I  needed to do to the best of my ability to support and strengthen my body and my whole being and to make the best of the time and opportunities available.
  • I decided that avoiding or at least reducing stress, anxiety and uncertainty is essential.

However, this is difficult when the world around me is changing, and introducing many new unknows, potential difficulties and things I need to take care of.

At times of public anxiety, it is easy to get sucked into hysteria and transgressing the important distinction between anxiety and reality, which can lead to emotional, mental and physical tension.

We all have choices about how we want to live our lives, how much we want to connect or disconnect.

For me time has started to take on some of old the meanings again for past, present and future, my identity, my history.  But it is and will remain tarnished by the knowledge of how quickly it can all be lost.

In the context of the presciousness of time, our health, politics and historic events like Brexit can take on a different quality (if we let it).

Especially when we are ill, we need to decide how far we allow what is happening around us to affect us.

Call it selfish, call it smart. And we have to do this in a way that remains true to our identity and to who we are.

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