Overcoming My Biggest Life Challenge: 8 Key Lessons Learned
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Undoubtedly, at some point in our lives, we will face major adversity, or "life shock". How we respond to this event is a key determinant on our well being and peace of mind. I want to use this blog to share what I learned from my biggest challenge in the hope that it will help you if you encounter similar turbulence in your life.
When I started writing this blog, I suddenly realised that it is 11 years this week that I suffered my first of 2 heart attacks in 18 months. So it is rather poignant that I am writing about my experience at this time. Its been a crazy rollercoaster of a journey with some huge lows. However, I have learned an immense amount about myself and, looking back, I don't regret what I've been through as it has taught me so much and presented opportunities that I wouldn't have had before.
Before that eventful day in January, I had always thought of myself as immune to major physical ailments, especially as I had always been keen on sport and keeping fit, training 3 times a week since I was 18 ( I was then in my early 40s). So even after feeling v unwell after coming home from a gym session, I thought I had just overtrained - having a heart attack was laughable, albeit slightly painfully, even as my wife called the ambulance.
As the event had occurred during the weekend, I had to stay in hospital over the weekend waiting for test results and to see various specialists. During that time I remember being immensely frustrated at having to stay in a bed, total loss of independence in a ward filled with people at least 30 years older than me. It was a complete anathema for me to be reliant on other people, especially when I felt I was fine and that this was a just a storm in a teacup.
I was not a good patient and refused to be wheeled to the bathroom as instructed by the ward sister. Eventually, I managed to extinguish her patience, she made me sign a waiver to absolve the hospital of blame in case something happened to me during my walk to the bathroom! It was also when she delivered a bombshell telling me that the tests came back showing I had a heart attack, hence her concern at my behaviour! Wow, what a bombshell...wasn't quite expecting to hear that at 230am!! Needless to say, I didn't sleep after that. Probably the worst night of my life - mind and heart racing at 1000miles an hour - the overflow of emotions - anger, fear, anxiety, feelings of injustice, frustration. I wandered about the wellbeing of my family, would I be able to work again? Anger at the world at my ill-luck! Why me? I did what the doctors say - exercise regularly, eat well, social drinker only and didn't do drugs or smoke! What was going on!!!??
Despite the pronouncement of the nurse, the blood tests were not 100 per cent conclusive so I underwent a procedure called an angioplasty, which enables the surgeons to view your heart and perform surgery if required, whilst you are awake! Have to admit it felt rather odd feeling all the rummaging going on around my heart whilst watching it on a big screen! The Cardiac surgeon began by reassuring me that it was really unlikely ( he said 1/100) that I had suffered a heart attack but they needed to be sure. However, within 5 minutes his tone completely changed and apologised and said what I thought was impossible..not only had I had a heart attack but it was likely that I had at least one other in the past! All my main arteries were completely blocked and they needed to open some of the worst affected ones by inserting stents. 5 stents later and I was back in the ward, so many thoughts and emotions swirling inside my head; confusion, bewilderment, sadness, fear to name some!
Although I was deemed well enough physically to be released from hospital 2 days later, it would take me much longer to come to terms with what happened. When I suffered a second heart attack only 18 months later, I realised my recovery was not going to be straightforward. It took me many years of learning to realise what I needed to do to move forwards in my life and accept what had happened. Even to this day, I am still learning and still have bad days. Thankfully there are now very few and I know have the benefit of putting into practice some key lessons which helped me enormously.
Lesson 1: Having a strong support network is essential to help your recovery.
Family and friends play a vital role in how you recover after a traumatic event. Especially during the early days after the first heart attack and again similarly after the second - in particular, having the support of my wife as well as other close family and friends. They never wavered in their belief in me and my ability to recover which, in turn, boosted my morale and kept my spirits up. My wife has not only been a constant source of support but also at times a stern friend preventing me from wallowing in self-pity.
Lesson 2: Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to heal.
The temptation is, especially for impatient people such as myself, to try and rush our recovery and get back to "normal" as soon as possible. However, this approach does not allow you time to process what has happened to you and to recognise that changes have to be made. It's not clear immediately after the event what those changes are - for work, or more importantly for your approach to life and your family. I was determined to get back to fitness and training in the shortest time possible, with the completely wrong assumption that once I was physically healed, all would be good! It took me a long time to realise that physical wellness is a veneer of well being but what's much more important is to understand the psychological changes that have occurred and the significance of these for your future well being.
Be kind to yourself both physically and mentally. You need time to process the event, and there is no need to try and fast forward the recovery process. For what purpose? The extra few weeks of rest and reflection are not only invaluable but essential for your future well being, so take them!
You might be thinking, " but what should I be contemplating during this time?" There have to be major changes in your life because of the event, but it is still possible to lead a fulfilling life with meaning and purpose. Use the time to identify possibilities and to reassess your priorities.
Lesson 3: Don't let adversity limit your future well being.
It is impossible to ignore or forget the significance of the traumatic event, but it's also important not to let it affect and diminish the quality of your life by becoming stuck in the past. Moving forward in your life means you will be able to identify and create new opportunities and possibilities; giving your life added meaning and focus.
Part of the healing process is to understand that things have to change due to the event. It involves looking at your life with a new lens; a realisation that changes will be needed to your lifestyle, approach to life, your beliefs and way of working. It also makes you reconsider your priorities - discard things which now have no meaning or relevance. As I discovered, this is not always easy but an essential part of the healing and recovery process. To take the emotions away from this exercise, I found it useful to imagine advising a close friend who is in the same situation.
Lesson 4: Don't play the blame game; negativity will only harm not heal.
One obvious emotion I felt after both heart attacks were anger - either directed at myself or my employer. I felt a deep sense of injustice aimed at my employer which had a very negative impact on my mental health. But anger only serves to harm your recovery and well being. So be mindful of your negative emotions; they will trap you into a quagmire of stagnant unconstructive behaviour dampening your mood and preventing you from moving on with your life. After all, your employers or anyone else affected by your anger is not affected - it is only you that suffers from anger.
Lesson 5: Where you are today is not where you will be tomorrow.
Having gone through the pain and tumult of recovery of the first heart attack, having to face the same battles again, 18 months later was something that caused me severe anguish. I put so much effort to regain my physical health and mental strength all for it to be crushed soon after the second heart attack.
I realised I had to think of recovery in small steps, not looking too far ahead. I was so weak I could not climb the stairs at home without holding onto the bannister and resting halfway ( there were only 12 steps). Even holding a cup of tea was awkward as my hand was continually shaking. One particular mantra that helped me and one I continue to use is "It's not where I am today but where I will be tomorrow/next week/next month. " This helped me to focus my efforts and thoughts on my immediate future and gave me laser-like thinking of what I needed to do today to get to the next level. It also stopped my mind wandering into negativity and self-pity at my current predicament. It helped show the impermanence of my weakness - it will pass. I also gained a lot of perspective from reading philosophy and studying mindfulness.
Lesson 6: Always look at the bright side; Be grateful.
Even though you have had a major trauma and have been affected severely, there are still reasons to be grateful. Certainly, for me, things could have been much worse - for one I survived both times! But I also still had the opportunity to recover physically; despite the damage to my heart, I am still able to carry on with my life, albeit with adjustments. I found it immensely helpful to my recovery to practice gratitude - for all the good things I still had in my life rather than to wallow in self-pity and curse my bad luck and misfortune. There are always people a lot worse than you and it is always important to remember that in dark moments. Being grateful also changes your mindset towards a positive one, a more hopeful one which uplifts your spirit and, makes you realise you still have far more good things in your life than anything you have lost.
A practical way of showing your gratitude is to help others; find a cause which is close to your heart - a local charity or other organisations which would benefit from your experiences to help others. Serving others is a fundamental part of my well being and the key reason I decided to devote my time to becoming a resilience and life coach.
Lesson 7: Your powers of resilience and survival are much greater than you think.
Overcoming adversity is a journey of self-discovery; you will discover traits about yourself you never realised you had and it will surprise you, in a good way! Overcoming such adversity requires resilience and determination. This will give you the confidence to help you overcome any other hurdles that occur later in your life. After all, if I can survive 2 hearts, how difficult can those subsequent challenges be?
Lesson 8: Asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness.
For too long after my traumas I refused to admit I needed help to move on; I kept an inscrutable face for my friends who still saw me as jovial and smiley. But that was a facade; during the early years, I struggled to get past the traumas as I refused to disclose my pain. But the truth is, you are not alone; your family and friends are more than willing to help and can play a substantial role in your recovery. Just going for a coffee with a friend and sharing some of your concerns or asking for some advice can be a massive relief. There are also several organisations, charities, support groups and coaches who specialise in resilience who could help. Keeping your struggles hidden is counterproductive and only serves to slow your healing and may at worst, prolong your pain.
Only when we stare directly into the deepest depths of darkness do we find out how immense the human spirit is and how all of us have this gift to overcome even the most daunting of circumstances.
Overcoming major trauma is never easy, and there is no "right" way to deal with such events. It has taken me a long time to adjust and find ways of dealing with my life shocks. I wanted to share the lessons of my experiences in the hope that they will resonate with others who have been similarly affected and help those who are struggling. Perhaps you know someone who has been affected by adversity and may need some help - please forward a copy of this blog to them.
I would be very interested in hearing about other people's experiences and what they found useful to help them heal and move onwards in their life. I also provide coaching to help people improve their resilience to adversity. Please email me at info@XtraClarity.com.