The curse of upbeatism on the road to recovery

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The feeling of a hot poker permanently pressing against the inside of your rectum is something else. “I’m begging you, I am in so much pain, it keeps getting worse. Please can someone help me!” I screamed in the A&E waiting area, without a care for the noise I was making and the embarrassment that came with it.

Twenty four hours later and I’m as comfy as I can be laying in a hospital bed in recovery. I have a 15cm hole in my right bum cheek. The surgeons had just drained a perianal abscess the size of a golf ball. I’m grateful to the surgeons for saving me from such physical pain.

Every day since the op I visit a nurse who cleans and packs my wound with this special packing material. They do that so the hole heals from the bottom up instead of over the top, to avoid further complications. God that hurts but I load up on pain relief to dull the sensation.

Back in bed in the hospital I knew my mental pain was just around the corner. “I’ve been here before a few times now, I can do this!” I tried to convince myself with panic written all over my face. Last time round was September 2020 and such a thought made things worse. Why is this happening again? My previous recovery took a real hit on my mental health and I knew it was only a matter of time before what had just happened to me was going to do the same.

Stupid f***ing brain 🧠

My default operating system is upbeatism: Remain optimistic and upbeat no matter what life throws at you. Kinda like a slightly more optimistic take on stoicism, yet still as practical and focused on the realities of life mixed with teachings from modern day mindfulness apps like Headspace. I try my best to always see the good in everything. Upbeatism has helped me achieve good things in my life and has helped me help many others.

But right now I am firmly in team grump. I’m frustrated with feeling frustrated. I feel low and sorry for myself. My mind is cloudy and I struggle to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time. I feel exhausted and sometimes nauseated.

I don’t feel like me. I feel like an alien. I am at direct conflict with my default operating system.

And the timing is rubbish. I started a new job as a Community Manager (official title “CommunityBoss”) for an incredible organisation called Ministry of Testing. It‘s a dream job as I get to learn how to evolve as a community manager/builder/advocate in a domain and community I'm familiar with. I’m grateful to Richard Bradshaw for seeing something in me and for giving me the opportunity. Richard’s been super supportive during this difficult time.

Acknowledging some truths about my mental health 😬😌

During this recovery period I’ve come to acknowledge some truths about my mental health:

I easily become obsessed with things.

I used to call this passion, but it’s actually obsession. I need to observe when I’m moving into “obsessive mode” and see it for what it is and take a step back. I struggle to do things in half measures or even in quarter measures. I tend to go all in once I’m set to a project, task or opportunity.

So to protect myself I decided to step away from the CommunityBoss role until I feel like I’m in a good place to get myself back in the mixer. And this breaks my heart as I had started to find my feet. I've been out of action since the start of June and it hurts. The guilt of not working is real and I feel this daily. I also missed an important community event, TestBash Home. Yet our community has been super supportive and understanding. The community is strong.

It also comes as no surprise that I’m obsessed with getting better. And in doing so I’m probably delaying getting better. Time to acknowledge that and see it for what it really is. Easier said than done when it’s a habit to break. As part of breaking this habit I'm going to have to feel comfortable easing back into things in small chunks, instead of going all in. Which is funny given my approach to work: I like to start and finish activities via discreet tasks. Why then can't I apply this approach to my obsessive passionate behaviour?

Defaulting to an upbeat and optimistic state has left me unprepared for difficult times.

I’ve been meditating for about six years now and use Headspace to do so. Some exercises explore the concept of getting too caught up in thoughts and feelings – both difficult and pleasant. I’ve never quite understood why it would be a problem to get too close to all the pleasant feelings and thoughts. Yet I think I now realise why. Because once the pleasant thoughts and feelings are taken away, it’s a real kicker.

Perhaps I have an unhealthy dependency on upbeat thoughts and feelings. I’m still learning about this and I’m glad to have practiced meditation up until now. It's prepared me to acknowledge the relationship I have with my current set of difficult thoughts and feelings. It’s been hard and I’ve skipped a few meditations during my recovery as I’ve just felt unmotivated to do so.

My mind and body are more connected than I thought.

I knew my mind and body were connected having learnt more about that during my meditation exercises and also just as I get older and embrace my forties. My body aches and I feel sluggish having done zero exercise for nearly a month.

I occasionally have to hold myself in a funny position to get comfortable. Plus I recently got a new infection down there due to not being able to pee prior to my surgery. Bad luck, eh! I’m now on a new set of meds for that.

The two or three short physical exercises I used to do a week helped with my mental health – but I didn’t realise by how much until I stopped exercising.

I set myself unrealistic expectations.

I don’t like to let people down and I don’t like to let myself down. Yet I feel I am right now. Funny, because for anyone else in recovery mode I'd say "Try if you can to be gentle and kind to yourself. You will get better."

I find it interesting I struggle to tell myself just that.

No matter how much I remain optimistic, it’s inevitable there’s gonna be something that knocks me back.

I’m surprised this happened again and I still can’t wrap my head around that, even though the underlying problem remains - I have a fistula.

It’s like deploying a hot fix for a fundamental software bug hoping that the real problem will just go away. It doesn’t until that underlying problem is rectified. And even when that problem is fixed there’s going to be something else. No amount of optimism is going to stop that.

I’ve had tragedy before in my life – much worse than this experience – so I need to acknowledge that tragedy & trauma will happen again at some point in the future. While uncomfortable, I think it’s healthy for me to acknowledge that it isn’t always gonna be alright.

What of these observations and reflections? 🤔

I like to join things up and relate it all to what’s happening in my world right now. What can I do with these observations and reflections? How might they influence how I work with community? It’s important for me to acknowledge them if I’m going to be authentic and successful in my new community manager role.

Community is about relationships and conversations. And if I acknowledge these observations I’m hopeful they influence the conversations and relationships I have with our community. And also help me work out how I best support the conversations and relationships of everyone in our community. As someone new to a community building journey I’m often told it’s important to set boundaries and perhaps these reflections are a good reminder of that.

Make a racket, or not 🏸

One particular tool that’s helped is Racket. A place where you record 9 minute audio-only conversations with yourself or others. Before this all happened I set a challenge to see if our community would be up for connecting with as many of each other as possible via Racket. A good number of the community have jumped onboard to share their experiences and connect with folks they’ve never spoken with. It’s amazing!

My trip to the local “packing” nurse take approximately 9 minutes and provides the perfect time to listen to a Racket. It’s the one thing that’s helped me stay properly connected to the testing community and community of community builders, like Erin Mikail Staples and Rosie Sherry. Usually I’m active, but for now I just listen. And I need to be ok with that.

Soon 🔜

So what next? I’m convinced I’ll have more surgery as I wait on the results of an MRI for the underlying problem. They took a "wait and see" approach back in September so this time they’ll have to take action, at the very least to stop another abscess forming.

It’s good to write again and not only am I using this post to be authentic, I’m using it to exercise my brain. And that feels good!

David Bowie once suggested we should turn and face the strange. Maybe I need to become more curious about these strange thoughts and feelings instead of getting caught up in them. There's a subtle yet big difference between the two.

I’ll be back soon enough. I don’t really know when. I don't think it'll be too long. I miss being part of something special. Luckily there's a bit of me that will always feel connected.


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Photo by Mark Boss on Unsplash