Who’s in charge of you, You?
By: James Foley
Who’s in charge of you, You?
You are simply living life, working, relating, achieving your dreams. Suddenly an event, or events, happen in your life that seems to take all that you had from you. In my case it was a cancer diagnosis and resulting long stay hospitalisations.
The shock of this denial of normal life seems unbearable. I suggest one of the reasons for this is because our culture fails to prepare us for our life being turned upside down. Indeed we are educated to succeed, not to cope with setbacks. I call this our society’s overemphasis on self autonomy.
This drive for this self autonomy is a key part of our culture. We are encouraged especially in our younger adult years to believe we should strive to live as we want to live.
Autonomy has been defined as:“The ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else”
Online Cambridge Dictionary
Being able to say in any situation I am free of any control over my life is a very attractive proposition, but is it a realistic one?
Is the indoctrination of autonomy ultimately hurtful? Does it ignore the harsh realities of life that we sometimes come against that exert their control over us.
“We don’t always get what we want”, as The Rolling Stones said many decades ago.
In this blog I will share some personal experience about my own struggle over my loss of personal autonomy.
I will present the option of positive acceptance as a more realistic approach to life planning, that encourages enduring perseverance.
“We’ll keep you”
As you may know in July 2020 I was diagnosed with cancer. This led to a steep learning curve in realising how I do not have control over my life.
First came the severe back pain, then the emotional and physical pain of all the various investigative procedures that were needed to identify the diagnosis.
A memorable event came when I was upset that I couldn’t put on my own socks. I asked a health care assistant to help. When I perceived he was unkind to me I became very upset with him and shouted at him crying.
Eventually being able to put on my own socks almost became a declaration of independence.
Perhaps the greatest crush to my fragile expression of self autonomy came when my consultant said to me, “We’ll keep you”. I had just finished my third cycle of chemotherapy. After the previous two cycles I had struggled to stay home and had readmissions between cycles. Regardless of this I still believed I could go home after cycle three. In hindsight I agree with the consultant’s view, but at the time I was devastated by it.
For the best part of two weeks I struggled with how to accept or not accept this. I was angry, my freedom was gone. I felt like I was being illegally detained against my will. I didn’t even get to sign a consent form.
Eventually the anger left, but I still had to come to terms with how I made my single hospital room my home, and even if I wanted to.
I did make the room mine, even homely with cards, photos and my children’s drawings, but still I knew it was not my home. The tension of accepting this and still being frustrated with it never left me while I was remained in that room.
In total I was there for 52 days.
Still I was coping with this tension better as time progressed. There were further setbacks but each time I was left with the same choice as to how to respond, with anger or perseverance. Only one of those choices had any practical positive outcome.
But my story is different
Of course your story does not correlate to mine. Each of us looses our autonomy in our own way, from the unique life experiences that are thrust upon us.
The point is, that throughout life the belief in being in control of our own destiny is a fantasy.
At every stage in life we are hindered in some way by internal or external forces that stop us from achieving our goals, big and small. Regardless of this we still keep trying, we still believe the mantra of our times, “If you want it hard enough, believe in yourself strong enough, you will succeed”. Sometimes we do, but often we fail.
During the lockdown’s of 2020 we were denied access to living our normal lives. Many people stayed in anger for this for very long periods of time. They lost the opportunities that lockdown provided of reconnection with themselves and those they cared for.
Am I saying people should stop trying to live life to its fullest? Absolutely not!
Self determination can achieve greatness. If we do not set goals for where we want to go, and what we want to do, chances are we will go no where and do nothing. Motivation to achieve a reward for our behaviour is an essential aspect of life.
The question is how do we cope when our ability to attain what we want is taken from us?
The more dramatic the removal of our life plans and the more significant those plans are to us, the more we will be hurt. Add this to strongly believing that you are entitled to achieve your life aims and life becomes very painful.
So how do we come to a working resolution of how to deal with severe unfair loss in life?
When life just works against us.
When everything we thought we believed about how we make life work is just blown away.
It has been my experience as a hospital based long stay patient that sometimes I have to accept the loss of autonomy in the immediate and short term so as to keep my mind focused on longer term goals that are still attainable. This is what I call positive acceptance.
We easily get caught up in the turmoil of loss and pain. Indeed we may need to do this so as to be able to come out the other end.
This season may last for moments, days, even years. Part of the struggle is experiencing the devastation of loss while knowing, “This too will pass”. Indeed it can be very frustrating having that internal battle going on. It may even add to the stress.
Then the time comes when we know we have to accept what has happened.
This can feel like submission, even defeat, but it doesn’t have to.
Accepting the present does not have to mean giving up on the future. By accepting the current situation you can save time and energy to plan beyond the present heartache to pick up again when the current pain moves on.
The circumstances of personal loss of autonomy always move on. Will we able to move with them? Are we ready for the day when the external control lifts to start living again, or are we stuck fighting against the initial perceived injustice?
When we lose control of our life it is a serious loss. We are brought up in the 21st centaury to believe all things are possible when we truly work for it and no one has the right to stop us.
Life may not allow that. Sometimes due to external or internal personal reasons we lose control over our life and our hopes and expectations are dashed.
Being upset and angry over this is a genuine reaction. The time comes when we have to decide do we stay in that space.
I propose that we can accept the current loss while focusing on future restoration. This positive acceptance is a solution to getting through serious loss of personal autonomy.