How many times have we uttered the phrase “oh if only I had more hours in the day…” before fantasising over the luxurious activities that would fill our extended timeline. Activities such as: moving the very important pile of tax paperwork from on top of the microwave to the actual paperwork file; charity-shop-ing anything in your wardrobe you haven’t worn since 1997; preparing & portioning healthy meals for the week rather than convincing yourself that the grapes in wine and the cranberries in Wensleydale count as two of your five a day; actually ironing shirts instead of deliberately buying them one size too small so that when you breath in it stretches out the creases (Dave); and most importantly, enjoying a bathroom break without having a toy car run over your knees or being constantly asked “what you doing?”. Ah the lives we’d lead if we had the time. Well, recently, with one leg rendered pretty useless for 8 weeks, I was given the gift of time. So, was my new ostentatious life all that I had hoped for and more? Was I now rivalling Kirsty Allsop for housewife of the year, with my taxes done until 2051 and drinking celebratory nettle tea in cups made from pine cones and recycled tampons? No. No I wasn’t. It turned out that, looking back reflectively, I sulked for 5 weeks and went out for lunch a lot. And by lunch I mean wine. This realisation made me quite sad, as a feeling of guilt washed over me. I had effectively wasted a chunk of my life that I could have been so much more productive in. Since I’m not planning to break any more limbs any time soon, it’s not like this kind of opportunity will arise again. Early on in my ‘leave’, when I was struggling to cope with the effects of the fertility drugs I was on, Dave mentioned something about a grieving process. I ignored it at the time (to be fair I ignored most of what was coming out of his mouth at that point, as it was that or high five him in the face with a chair) but looking back on all that has happened over the last 5 weeks, the boy may have a point. I worked in Psychology for 7 years, and although I now prize myself on hanging upside down for a living, my Doctorate is still as pertinent now as it was then.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first proposed a 5-stage model of grieving in 1969, originally to describe the stages of dealing with terminal illness, including Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Like every Psychological theory ever, the model has come up against some criticisms over the years, I mean a lot has changed since 1969 – Man walking on the moon, the internet, the smoking ban, the recession, Brexit, Love Island, Boris Johnson – but in general, the five stages laid out by Kubler-Ross are still applicable to a wide range of situations in modern day life. With this said, they are not definitive and not everyone experiences them all or in the same order. They are not stops on some linear timeline of grief, like the 15:31 from Birmingham to Kings Cross. For me, I had several cycles going at once, with different issues at different stages of its associated model but also interacting with parallel models – for example I was angry that I couldn’t teach with my leg injury I was also simultaneously depressed about our failed fertility treatment, and the emotions of one problem fed into the other like a never-ending spiral. What’s worse, is that in the moment, at the time when you would most benefit from understanding the processes behind the raging cocktail of emotions you are subject to, nothing makes sense. It’s like the part of your brain responsible for logical thinking shuts down like some kind of counter-intuitive evolutionary response. It’s as if someone has switched off the lights in a maze and turned the audio up to a deafening level. But not a fun maze; one of those Halloween mazes where things jump out at you and you never know if you’re about to get f*cked up by a clown. So, in an effort to understand the events of the past 5 weeks, and in an attempt to help other people going through similar emotional f*ckwittery, I’ve tried to explain Kubler-Ross’s model in a less sciencey more first-round-of-The-Apprentice kind of way.
DENIAL – The “I’m fine” stage
Denial is the comb-over for the balding man. It is a coping mechanism that helps us to survive a loss, whether it be a loss of a job, loss of a limb, the loss of a friend or loss of a baby. You find yourself trying to convince yourself and others that you are ‘fine’ even when it couldn’t be further from the truth. As, if we deny that something is true, then we don’t have to deal with it and ergo cannot logically become emotional about it. Joshua regularly uses denial as a tool when he doesn’t want to do something. Take this classic example:
Me: Joshua, baby, it’s time for bed
Joshua: No it’s not
Me: Josh, come on, you’re a tired bunny
Joshua: No I’m not
*subsequently falls asleep in food*
I swear that some days it feels more like hostage negotiation with a drunken bi-polar pirate than actual parenting.
As I lay in the hospital bed wide eyed and hopeful that this was my month, this cycle had worked, I could just feel it; and the nurse then told me that the scan showed no egg follicles big enough to be viable, I convinced myself that it was just too early to tell. The treatment hadn’t failed, we just needed to give it more time. Similarly, for the first week of being in a leg brace, I assured myself and others that I’d only be out of action for a week and that the follow-up MRI would certainly show no significant damage. As a subsequent coping mechanism associated with this denial, (and in an attempt to fill the “time off” I was now forced to take), I went out for lunch. A lot. And by lunch, I mean wine. Not the healthiest way of dealing with my issues, but nonetheless a way of blocking out what might otherwise have been an overwhelming reality. You see, there is a grace in denial – it helps us to pace our feelings of grief. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the situation, you unknowingly begin the healing process, but as you do, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface, including Anger and Depression.
ANGER – the “I wish I were a Unicorn so I could stab idiots with my head” stage
A wise man once said to me: when you get angry, take a breath and count to 10. Throw a punch at 8. Nobody expects that”. Anger can be directed internally towards oneself or externally toward others as a way of lashing out and dissipating emotion. Usually when I am angry with the world, I turn to exercise to release some energy. However, with my leg in a brace this was not possible. Consequently, when I was told that I would be stuck in the brace for 6-8 weeks and was not allowed to teach during that time, I had no physical outlet for my anger. I was angry at myself for getting injured in the first place, I was angry at the leisure centre for not letting me work (not their fault btw, it’s an insurance legality; I was just being a dick) and I was angry at Dave for no reason other than being in the room. Similarly, my inability to become pregnant evoked feelings of anger towards myself for being ‘broken’ but also, towards other people who were currently pregnant. This was rather unfair of me, as it had nothing to do with them, but I was just angry at the world and how unjust it seemed. This anger response to perceived injustice and unfairness stems from an evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response, or once described as the ‘fight or flight or call a friend and complain’ mode. When our evolutionary survival is questioned, we are required to make a response. However, when our response options are limited, i.e. we are neither able to fight nor escape the situation, rather than feeling completely powerless, we turn to support groups as an emotional outlet. This was the case for me just a couple of weeks ago, when it was brought to my attention by several sources that someone had stolen one of my recent competition routines and passed it off as their own. Upon first viewing, I wasn’t greatly enamoured by the performance as although I could see that they were trying to portray the same genre, the execution was quite frankly shoddy. However, the more I watched, the more I became aware of the similarities, too many so to be a coincidence – the theme, story-line, music style, move combinations, genre, even down to the comedy voice-overs that our performances are renowned for. If this was a just-for-fun performance or showcase, or if they had credited us in any way, or even if they had been clever enough to do a parody of us, then fair play. But no. This was a really poor quality rip-off of our International competition winning routine, performed at a competition of their own and passed off as ‘original’. The lack of originality, the dishonesty and the deception infuriates me. And there it was: that feeling of ‘fight or flight’, but with the option to do neither. There was no way of undoing what they had done, thus fighting was futile and would only be perceived as us being ‘sour’.
A friend of mine, James, who runs a 5-aside football team found himself in a similar situation recently. One of the people who used to train on the team made the decision to leave and start up a team of their own. I’m unsure of their reasons for doing so, but from what I can gather it wasn’t a clean break and some ongoing tension remained between the teams. Anyway, it was brought to James’s attention recently that three of his teammates were training with the other team. What angered him was not the fact that they were training elsewhere, it’s that they weren’t courteous enough to tell him. He wouldn’t have stopped them from going, he’s a nice bloke, but the fact that the three teammates omitted to drop it into conversation was taken as a betrayal of his trust and he was really quite hurt by the situation. What made it worse was that when their actions were questioned by a mutual friend, one of them was reported to say that “oh James doesn’t have time for us anymore”. Well, if you’re reading this, let me make it clear; James is actually a father of two who works all hours God gives him, and has now been made to feel unwanted by his own teammates. In the words of Matt Coyne: what a Countryfile.
According to Kubler-Ross, anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the situation. At first, grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone and suddenly you have a structure – your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, it is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it, but anger is just another indication of the intensity of your passion for something – whether that be dance, exercise, children or friendship.
BARGAINING – the “at least give me some decent gin to go with these lemons” stage
Before a loss it seems like you will do anything to spare the thing you are fighting for: “oh no no no, not the laptop, please be waterproof, I promise I’ll never drink coffee near it again…heck I promise I’ll never drink coffee again (though I may substitute it with a mixture of gin and crack cocaine)”. In my case, it was a loss of a job, albeit a temporary loss: “please, I promise to only direct Zumba from the front rather than joining in, and I’ll sign a waiver to say it’s at my own risk”. Of course, the gym knew me all too well, and they rightly pointed out that it was an insurance liability. They didn’t say it, but we both knew deep down that with all the best intentions in the world to “be good”, I’d end up joining in anyway, leg brace or no leg brace. The hospital consultant had also obviously dealt with the “good intentions” of athletes before, as he placed a lock on the brace that would prevent my knee from bending more than 90 degrees. The restricted range of motion is designed to help heal the injury, but I suspect that the consultant also knew that if they gave me an inch, I’d probably take a mile, so a physical restriction was probably the safest way to guarantee any level of ‘rest’. I have to be honest, the only reason I’ve not demonstrated some moves in pole/hoop over the last couple of months is not through lack of trying, it’s that the brace physically won’t allow me to. So, all in all, it turns out that the medical professionals do know what they’re talking about – go figure!
After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce: “Ok, well I accept that I can’t teach high impact cardio, but I can still teach pole, right?”. Unfortunately, when I presented this argument to the gym, I did not get the straight forward ‘yes’ I had expected, but instead an agreement conditional on a Drs note that specified I was fit to teach with amendments. However, at least we did reach some kind of compromise, not like when I gave a pole workshop organiser a month’s notice that I would be unable to attend the day, expecting her to refund me the best part of a hundred quid and instead she gave me the metaphorical finger. She wrapped it up with fluffy words and a disingenuous ‘sympathy tilt’ of the head, but she might as well have pulled out the world’s tiniest violin from her back pocket and started serenading me with it. This then sent me back to the ‘anger’ stage of the cycle, just when I thought I was making progress! Like when you almost get to the end of a game of monopoly that you’ve been playing for eleventy billion frickin hours, and some monkey flipper sends you to jail without passing go or collecting your $200.
In this bargaining stage, we can become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements: “If only I hadn’t trusted that fart”; “If only I had checked that text was going to Dave and not dad before sending it”; “If only I hadn’t left that protein shaker in the van in the 30 degree heat for 3 days and then thought it was a good idea to open it”. We want life returned to what is was before the incident occurred; we want to go back in time, to prevent what has happened from happening. Furthermore, bargaining is often accompanied by guilt; the “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. For me, I constantly blame myself for our fertility troubles. Although we’ve never been given a definitive reason for why my body doesn’t produce oestrogen naturally, it’s likely that it was at least in part self-inflicted by a combination of too many years on the contraceptive pill and the low fat to muscle ratio associated with being a competitive athlete. However, unless you have a Flux Capacitor and a hairstyle like you’ve had a thousand volts to the testicles, we are powerless to change the past (btw, I’m not saying that Cher is a Natzi or anything, but at no point during “If I Could Turn Back Time” did she mention killing Hitler. #JustSaying). Therefore we have to learn to be kinder to ourselves and adopt a more “you win some, you lose some” approach to bargaining. Some days you eat salads and go to the gym; some days you eat cupcakes and refuse to put pants on. It’s called balance.
DEPRESSION – the “every sad song in the charts is about me” stage
After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a traumatic event. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense overwhelming sadness. Depression after a traumatic event is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. However, depression as a stage of grief is a normal and appropriate response and is an integral part of the healing process.
It’s just sods law that when I hit this stage of the grieving process associated with my leg injury and compulsory leave, I was also on a cocktail of hormone replacement therapy and fertility drugs which not only sent me batsh*t crazy, but magnified any feelings of depression tenfold. It was like someone had used an industrial JCB to scoop up eleventy billion tonnes of elephant excrement and hurled it into a wind turbine during a hurricane. When you’re feeling like this, little things that would otherwise seem inconsequential, suddenly carry a lot more weight. A couple of weeks ago, I was about to start my pole class when a couple of my regular Zumba ladies come into the room looking ever so worried. They said that it was important that I was aware of something that had just happened in the Zumba class next door. I could see from their faces that they weren’t joking and I suddenly became quite worried. My Zumba class was being covered by a lady who used to run it years ago. She left due to an ongoing back injury and because she lived so far away that the time and travel money required to teach the class was no longer economically viable. When I took over from her, there were a group of her ‘followers’ who kicked up a stink, rebelling against my presence. It only took a couple of weeks for my numbers to hit full capacity again, and I’ve never had any trouble since. Apparently, those same people had been attending whilst that instructor covered my class and one of them strode into the room that evening with a petition to have her take over from me permanently. Thinking about it rationally, in hindsight, it’s really not something to get upset about – it’s just pathetic school-ground bullying tactics by a minority – and after talking to the gym manager about the situation she agreed. However, at the time, in the midst of an emotional low, it gave me this sense of worthlessness, a feeling that nobody wanted, needed, or loved me.
In times like this, a support network is paramount. Last year, one of my close friends went through a tough time mentally, and stopped communicating with me, which I found really hard, as all I wanted to do was help her and make sure she was OK. I’d regularly send her messages through multiple social mediums, and unbeknown to her, frequently make the journey to her house to make sure she was still… there. After 4 months of silence, she finally started communicating again, and I started meeting with here again on a weekly basis. Then she found a new man, which was fabulous because he seemed to be a really good, stable, influence on her. This year has had some tough times for me, with the last couple of months being particularly testing, in which I could really have done with her to extend the same courtesy to me as I did for her. However, a couple of weeks ago, she sent me a message to say that she had a new job and couldn’t meet regularly anymore. Then she stopped communicating with me again. The difference is, this time it was not due to her mental health, it was because she simply didn’t have time for me. Gandhi said that the greatness in humanity is not being human, it’s being humane. Basically, don’t be a dick to people and try to have a little more compassion than a festering dog turd. Luckily, I did have some really good friends who pulled through for me during this emotional low, who eased the pain with gin and innuendo bingo (you know who you are!). I have tried to substitute my childish innuendo filled conversations for normal adult intellectual discussions…but it’s hard. So hard.
ACCEPTANCE – the “Boris Johnson is PM … my problems seem pretty insignificant now” stage
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about traumatic events such as the loss of a loved one. But it’s OK not to be OK all of the time. This stage of Kubler-Ross’s model is about accepting the reality and recognising the timespan of it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. At first many people want to maintain life as it was before, but in time, we learn to reorganise roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief it’s time.
For me, I had several moments of acceptance, the first being that we weren’t going to make a baby any time soon. The latest fertility treatment had not been successful, and unfortunately Dave’s job meant that he would be out of the country for the next two cycles. It was a hard one to accept, as I felt I had been through so much over the last two years, just to fall at the last hurdle. Moreover, I’m still taking the hormone replacement drugs which are having some really undesirable effects on my body including extreme bloating, so now I just *look* pregnant without actually being up the duff. It’s cruel really, like making someone run a marathon but then keep moving the finish line. However, any time I feel like this, I remember the extreme marathon runner Lloyd Scott who, in 2002, ‘ran’ the London Marathon wearing a deep-sea diving suit. It took him more than 5 days to complete, but he got there in the end and he didn’t give up, although I’m sure he wanted to on multiple occasions.
Similarly, as hard as it was to accept that I was unable to dance/run/teach with my leg in a brace, once I did so it motivated me to look to the future. Unfortunately this acceptance took a good 5 weeks to come about, and looking back retrospectively, the time I spent sulking, going out for lunch and drinking copious amounts of wine, was not necessarily the most constructive use of the extra hours in the day. However, to an extent this was a necessary part of the grieving process and out the other end I’ve learnt a lot about myself, including the fact that I’m not indestructible. I’ve never known where my limits lay…5 weeks ago I found them, with a very audible snap. I’m now super motivated to get back to full health and concentrate on my fitness, in the baby-making interim. And never again will I be repeating the move that broke my leg. But, you know what they say: what doesn’t kill you , makes you stronger …or in my case gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humour.