On Resilience

It’s February 2017. Rutland is cold and quiet. The days are short. I’ve been rostered out of my work at the call centre, so I’ve had the last two weeks off.

I’ve been chauffeuring my son Freddy to and from college in Stamford. It’s a twenty minute drive from Oakham, on a road that winds around the side of Rutland Water, Britain’s largest inland lake. Picture perfect. I steal glances at the glittering water as we drive by, the surface is vast, a mirror for the endless grey-blue winter sky. At the top of Burley Hill, falcons wheel and turn, looking down for prey, high up in the air Ospreys arch their wings and circle.

Freddy’s in charge of music in the car, so these journeys are generally made to a soundtrack of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jake Bugg, or Elbow. For a 55 year old man like myself, this represents a welcome musical re-education, so we usually turn the tunes up loud. I’ve quickly come to associate those journeys along the Water’s edge with majestic voices and searing, intelligent lyrics. It adds to what is an already strong connection to my surrounding landscape.

I love to look out over the lake to the Hambleton peninsular. That’s where Nic and I were living when Sepsis nearly took my life so brutally in December 1999. The village on top of the hill there, rising up out of the water, somehow symbolises my own resilience. I feel a huge affinity with this place, a deep emotional connection.

This geographical rooting in my surroundings gives me enormous satisfaction. It’s quite odd really, because I grew up a hundred miles south, in Essex and London – but Oakham was the place Nic and I chose to set up house together, in 1996. It was a magical time for us, when we fell in love, and we found a place that was equally enchanting to hide away together.

Living in Hambleton, right out in the middle of the lake, was just that – a hideaway. The nights were silent, time passed slowly, there was a delightful preciousness in everything that surrounded us, intrinsic value in everything we did. I was so proud and happy. I planted a magnolia tree in front of our tiny cottage when Grace was born.

Snap back to now. To the present. We must try hard not to dwell on the past. I know that by now. Each of us has the power to choose how we think and feel about the past and I believe I have a duty to do that for myself both kindly, constructively and intelligently. My body has been through so much trauma, so I am increasingly careful about the way I speak and classify my experience. Put simply, I feel like I need to be gentle in my mind, generous to my soul.

Resilience. Lately, I’ve grown attached to that word. It’s defined as an individual’s ability to successfully adapt to life tasks in the face of social disadvantage or highly adverse conditions.Well, adversity and stress can come at me in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, broken prostheses, or financial worries. But my resilience allows me to bounce back from negative experiences with what they call ‘competent functioning’.

It hasn’t come easily. Actually, I kicked up rough about my situation for a few years after my Sepsis and it took me all that time before I worked out that unless I learned the process of developing reasoned, structured responses to all my challenges, I would lose everything I had left.

Let me give you an example.

Just a few weeks ago my local Disabled Services Centre made me a set of new legs. This was a big event for me as my legs are only revised once every five years or so. But I had to take them back after only a week because the legs proved to be extremely painful and had resulted in wounds on my stumps that continuously bled. I can deal with pain, but this was just too much.

When the technician examined the legs I had been given she told me that:

  • The legs themselves had been transposed so that the left was in fact a right and vice versa.
  • To complicate matters the liners for each of the lining sockets had been incorrectly marked so I had been given a left liner that was meant for my right leg stump and a right liner shaped for my left leg stump.
  • This meant that I had been provided with a left leg which was in fact a right but with a left foot on it, together with a right leg which was really a left but with a right foot on it.

The result was severe leg sores and bleeding, plus acute daily pain over a number of days. My ability to walk was greatly impaired. I ended up staying in a lot. The prosthetist expressed shock at the mistakes on the way the legs had been made. She herself dressed the bleeding wounds on my leg stumps.

Well, what to do. In times past, sensing I’d drawn the short straw, I’d have had a row about it. I’d have made a real fuss, taken a formal complaint right to the top, demanded an explanation, reported the story to the local media. I’d have been combative about it, and I would have devoted a big chunk of my time and energy in letting everyone know.

But now, I’m calmer. I no longer take these things personally. I saved myself the bother of complaining, got a new set of legs that fitted perfectly and moved on. In the process, the prosthetist and I had a bit of a laugh about it, and while she got things fixed, we kind of bonded in a way that I know will help me with future repairs. Job done, no drama. The blood pressure has not risen, and my wounds have healed now.

I like this new world I live in. Words like balance, understanding, respect and forbearance have real value to me now. I’ve started to speak in public about my experience of Sepsis, the drama and the outcomes, and this has given me a much more profound perspective.

We all have pressing challenges. You, reading this, will have one or two issues causing you great concern. I know you will. But remember, there’s always more than one way of looking at every situation, and by drawing on your inner resilience, you can manage anything.

I know I can, and although I am lacking in some departments right now, that makes me feel strong.