Published in InterAction 73, Autumn 2010
After being diagnosed with M.E. 12 years ago, Diane Shortland has been determined to recover. Her Laughter therapy series, available in the members area of the website, is powered by the humour that has helped her through.
“She lay quite still, unresponsive to all stimuli, in the exact spot she had laid the day before, and the day before that; in fact, the exact spot she had laid for the weeks, months and years of the last decade or so. Her friends still visited, her family still cared, and in the depths of her own consciousness the seed of hope remained, but still she stayed there, rooted to the same bed, in the same house, down the same street, in the same village.
“Then one random Thursday morning, life began again. A Thursday that was as uneventful as any of the other 500 Thursdays that had come and gone whilst she had been sleeping – except that effortlessly and without thinking, the girl woke up, got dressed, walked downstairs and went out.
“She got in her car and drove to town, something she had done hundreds of times before in a previous life.
“It felt so natural, so normal, like perhaps she had actually dreamt the last 10 years – and in many ways, that is all she had done. It wasn’t until she actually arrived in town however, that the ‘awakening’ truly began…”
The girl was me
In case you haven’t quite worked it out yet, the girl was me. Ok, so the above is a little fabricated and I’m still awaiting the sudden miracle of overnight perfect health, but as my dark cloud of M.E. gradually begins to lift and, month by month, I rejoin the outside world again, it appears to me, more and more, like I’ve just woken up.
For even though everything is the same as a whole, each individual piece of that whole is actually very different. And on a par with longterm coma victims, I feel as if I awoke to a world I both instantly recognised and yet had never seen before.
Have I lost you? Don’t worry it will all become clear with a few examples.
The world as I knew it, where I lived moment-to-moment, day-today and was involved in all aspects of its intricate ways, was 1998. It is now 2010. If you lived each of those years in between, you will have been subject to a vast variety of changes but not really startled by them, as life is an ever-evolving process. But jump from one to the other and you find yourself in a very different experience altogether.
Take the common, everyday occurrence of a petrol pump. There was a local, family-run garage I would pull up at a couple of times a week on my way to work. I was notoriously running late on these occasions (and pretty much every other weekday), so I would pull up, still eating toast and trying to curl my hair in the rear view mirror. While I did so a kind soul (who probably knew my dad and could tell an embarrassing story or two about when I wet myself in the Co-op on my third birthday, or played kiss and tell with his son in primary school) would fill my tank up for me and take my cash, without me even having to move from my driver’s seat.
Wake up in 2010, however, and no-one serves you at all. Human contact has been obliterated and replaced by buttons, many buttons, flashing at you and telling you to hurry or the car behind will be honking (patience also appears to be a thing of the past but don’t get me onto that particular soapbox).
My first experience at Tesco petrol pumps still brings me out in a cold sweat 11 months later – and I started off so confidently, too. Pulled up to the pump grinning from ear to ear at the freedom of being well enough to do such a task again myself. Undid my cap, put the nozzle in and squeezed…
Nothing. I looked around at everyone else, their pumps singing the loud siren of fuel removal all around me, while mine was silent as a mouse. Why? I hadn’t a clue.
I wiggled it, I banged it, did the procedure through again (twice), then finally let my little embarrassed face get back in the car and drive away as fast as I could. Humiliation in the first degree! Of course I still needed petrol, plus then I also began to panic. What if I was on CCTV looking as if I’d burned off without paying?
Finally, however, sheer stubbornness set in and I thought, “No, damn it, I shall not be beaten!” Bravely I returned, went to a different pump and discovered the all important ‘pay at kiosk’ button – hey presto! Trust my luck, on my maiden voyage after a decade, I had picked the one where the sticker had fallen off.
Wow, barcode zapping
So yes, it is now possible to pay for things without actually feeling like you’ve paid for them at all. You can even do this in the supermarket, wow! Barcode zapping your own goodies? If I’d suggested that in Tesco 10 years ago I’d have been whisked to security for potential shoplifting.
The only theft now, it seems, is the prices themselves. Inflation sure has been busy while I rested. I find myself frequently handing over to Mum what I consider to be ample or, at worst, certainly adequate funds for my shopping, only to witness hysterical laughter, followed by her saying, “You are joking darling, aren’t you?”
It’s not just material things like shopping that have changed, though – whole places have, too. The first time I went to my local town again, I literally didn’t recognise where I was. There was a totally new road system. I felt like a tourist in my own homeland. Then I discovered a flyover and multi-storey car park.
It was as if the town had had a whole new face lift and become up-market. It gave off the air of a place to be reckoned with, bursting with confidence and change. I, on the other hand, felt awkward, not recognising anywhere I used to go.
I asked my friends where everyone hung out now. Their replies sounded foreign: “Well, no-one goes to Dr Thirsty’s anymore, not since The Zone has opened.” Dr Thirsty’s? I didn’t even know the old hangouts, let alone the new places.
Fashion is a bizarre concept, too. Get out of the loop for a few years and boy, do people’s outfits look odd. I guess if you hibernate long enough, with fashion trends repeating you could actually find your whole wardrobe was trendy again. I wasn’t this lucky, however. I have spent (‘spent’ being the operative word here) the last year gradually updating my wardrobe to eliminate visits from the fashion police.
Happenings have occurred that I never would have dreamt possible 10 years ago. Who would have put a wager on the extinction of Woolworths, for starters? Or the banning of smoking in public places?
Travel hasn’t stood still, either. They tell me map reading is a thing of the past now: cue “welcome to the world of sat nav.” A wonderful invention without a doubt, but I question whether its creators paused to fully examine the consequences of this driving revolution on real people’s lives. Bang goes the “I got lost” excuse when running late for a meeting. Sat nav could be responsible for literally thousands of job losses – no wonder we have hit a recession!
What I’m trying to say is, stupidly perhaps, I didn’t expect all this. I thought about getting well, about getting stronger and picking my life back up, but I never thought about how it would actually be when I did. Being able to was such a hurdle that the rest never crossed my mind. Silly really, given that the only sure thing is change. I shall choose to see this as a positive, however, for I am seeing things again through the eyes of a newborn. Not many people have a justifiable reason to say, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it” now, do they?
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