This article was kindly written for Mr Perfect by Jeremy Hyman, a long-serving Board Member and advocate for all things mentally healthy.
This year has tested me like no other. People who know me, often say words to the effect - you are always a 'glass half full' or eternal optimist. Until 2020, I would have thought that was accurate.
Have you heard the phrase annus horribilis? It's a Latin phrase, meaning "horrible year" with origins dating back to the late 1800s.
I have lived four decades on this earth without realising all the challenges that life can entail.
From the outset, let me reassure you that whilst I am irrevocably changed, the sunlight is finding its way back, slowly but surely, to where it once was, and illuminating those dark chambers and recesses deep within me once more, as hope and optimism returns. I am both confidently and purposefully rewriting the year that was, thanks in large part to a gift of untold promise, as I hold my newborn son, Charlie.
Patterned ceilings are common within ornate Federation period houses in Australia. Our home has such highly decorated ceilings ornamented with plaster cornices, ceiling roses and panels. All-in-all, I spent months looking up at my ornate ceiling, as I lay flat in my bed, stricken by rising pain, the likes of which I had never experienced before.
This was interspersed with trips to various doctors and finally being sent for scans delivered via alien like machines that sucked me into their belly, revealing "gross" herniated discs in my neck. Ghastly pain radiated down my right arm and into my fingers and I slowly, then towards the end, quickly, lost strength in my right arm.
On a stunningly bright and sunny Friday morning, following an unrelenting night of increasing pain that we could no longer control at home even with heavy opiates, my wife decided that my situation had come to a crossroads, and drove me to the emergency department. My memory of these events is to this day somewhat hazy.
After 2 days and 3 different surgical opinions, I underwent an 'anterior cervical discectomy and fusion' (or ACDF), otherwise known as a neck fusion - in my case, make it a double barman! The axe swung from C5 to C7. However the recovery post op was slow and I experienced new complications, with a frustrating lack of follow up from my surgeon and anxiety provoking new pain. My mental state was spiralling and I didn't know what to do.
During this entire period of ill health, my dear and very pregnant wife Lucy, was running our household single-handedly whilst managing our 2 year old daughter (Isabella), playing the role of my primary carer and still running her medical practice as a kidney physician.
Thankfully after many weeks a second opinion led to me finally receiving the care I needed, with a surgeon who provided much needed reassurance and critical assistance in both managing my pain and the provision of physical rehab. At last, I was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that a recovery, in time, was possible.
Then I heard some shocking news, at a time I was least prepared for further sadness - a close friend had unexpectedly died. As reported in the media, he'd set out early one morning for a bushwalk near his holiday house in Kilcare. I howled at the funeral, in no state prepared to deal with more setbacks and still feeling the emotional impact of my recovery, and in no way aided by the cocktail of drugs I was on to control my pain. I struggled with the questions of why my dear friend had left this world so abruptly, and what happened on that fateful bushwalk?
Then came another call. One befitting the trajectory of an annus horribilis year. My favourite Aunty Ruth was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My aunt was the best of humans, generous to a fault, selfless and a pillar of her community. I watched as her world and that of her two adoring children, both expecting parents themselves, came crashing down.
She was to undergo the 'Whipples' procedure - often referred to as the worst of all possible operations. My dear Aunty Ruth never recovered from this and after months in intensive care, was sent home. At the time of writing this, I have seen her twice in an emaciated state, nearing the end.
The sadness of this year won't leave me anytime soon. I know this is part of the human condition and we are all tested at one point in time or another. The finality of death is what I most struggle with, being not of the faith variety. I keep remembering the quote, from whom I know not it comes from: Grief is the price we pay for love.
I am currently creating a new bumper sticker which says - "Something good in 2020", following the arrival of Charlie. Each day, I am mindful of the wonderful life I have to live surrounded by people that love me, not least of which: my beautiful and adoring wife Lucy; my mini dictator, but loveable two-year old daughter Isabella; my parents; my two beautiful sisters; my wonderful in-law's; the wonderful friends, many of which can be found within this Firm; and my dog Harry Chops
Albert Einstein once said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” That resonates with me, as I reflect in this moment. In the thirst for wisdom on life, I have come to perhaps know a few answers in the course of this year that I thought perhaps I'd share, for what it might be worth to others.
I have come to realise that most of the mental anguish which makes my life challenging is the unhelpful narratives which occur when dwelling on past conflicts or difficult situations. Likewise, we project forward to what I'd call the 'what if's?' Creating unhelpful narratives in our mind about how things might transpire in the future, most of which, if not all of them, never eventuate.
Time and emotional energy expended on unhelpful thoughts can bring me undone. Life is actually happening here and now. Staying present in the moment and purposefully being more mindful of my surroundings is the key to unlocking the glass half full, eternal optimist in me.
Finally, in surrender to a cliché, knowing that there is a reason why certain expressions or ideas become so commonly used - life is a wonderful gift and this time spent on this Earth is our most valuable commodity. I am going to make it count, now more than ever!