To the NHS nurse who held my hand

When I was 17 years old I had a Cancer scare. The ultimate outcome was that I was far too young to go through invasive screening and that they were certain I was fine. This unfortunately led to a series of health related anxieties, doctors visits and serious hypochondria. When I say the word “hypochondria’ I’m sure many people envisage a germaphobe or a comedy sketch with Dr Google sentencing me to death. It is and was, however, a serious and debilitating form of health anxiety which affects me in profound ways. I’m sure many will think that it’s such a privileged standpoint, to be worrying about these illnesses and never actually have them. But it really is rough, intrusive and overwhelming. I’ve written a more specific post about Hypochondria and you can find it here.

In May 2017 at age 24, the symptoms that I had gotten at age 17 came back. Without going into too much detail, I ended up getting a procedure done to screen for Cancer. This was the ‘invasive’ screening that the doctors in my teens had told me I was too young to go through, and good grief were they right. Let’s just say it involved a needle and an ultrasound machine.

When I got to the screening clinic I had no idea that I would end up getting this procedure. I was greeted by two lovely smiling receptionists and sat down in the reception amongst the rest of the people waiting. I was called through to a doctors office and I remember it being oddly dark in there. I’m sure there’s a technical or medical reason for it but it made the experience extra trippy. For the life of me I can’t remember the Doctor’s name. I only remember that she looked like Charlotte Rampling and that she was a little bit scary (though I expect anyone holding a needle with the intention of stabbing you with it is terrifying).

What I do remember though, was Louise. Louise was the nurse that called me into the room and stayed with me the whole time. I remembered her name because she was like my guardian angel that day. Thank the stars for her. When it all started she held my hand as if I was her own daughter, and I just kept wondering how many hands she’d held before.

As I looked at the details of one particular ceiling tile I realised my feet were freezing cold. I had my running shoes on and I remember looking down at them, desperately to put the thoughts of illness and disease and infection out of my mind, and to quiet the voices asking ‘did she sterilise that needle?’ and ‘what if she finds something?’. On the other side of the room I could see my boyfriend who was told he had to stay on the other side of the half drawn curtain. There was a piece of fluff hanging from the ceiling vent and I stared at it… and stared and stared.

When the procedure started the Doctor said ‘You poor girl’, and I just kept holding Louise’s hand. And Louise was there. She didn’t know that I was already envisaging my own funeral, or picturing my immune system being set upon by bacteria shaped monsters. But Louise was there and she made everything seem okay, because she’s a bloody good nurse. When it was all finished Louise took us out of the room and asked me how I felt, I said ‘tired’ and she said ‘me too’, she was definitely more tired than me. I went home, ate monster much and watched Lilo and Stitch.

For the first time in a long time, I couldn’t obsess about an invisible illness or an itch or a dirty hand rail on the tube, I had finally seen what I had been terrified about for so long, and it was smaller than an MnM. The fears of death and illness were suddenly replaced with rationality and planning calmly for the various scenarios that might surface.

When it all came through clear, I was relieved, but I also felt silly, and thankful, and blessed that we have a National Health Service in this country with hundreds of thousands of of Louises.

The NHS is immeasurable, irreplaceable and essential. But it’s slowly being driven to the point of total breakdown. Louise does a job that I could never do, she sees people through their most vulnerable times with a smile and profound strength. I have friends who are nurses, I have a boyfriend who’s training to be a doctor, these people are amazing and I honestly couldn’t imagine having to do what they do. The NHS has been incredible to me. It works, and it works hard.

I hope we can continue to spread our stories and share our gratitude towards the NHS staff who have held our hands, saved our lives, helped us through illness and fought for us. In a world full of hatred, selfishness and fear… I think we should all strive to be a little more ‘Louise’.

To Live would be an Awfully Big Adventure

Two years ago I went through an episode of serious hypochondria. The gut squeezing, head pounding fear set in after I noticed a tiny rash on my skin. I googled and trawled through the internet , finding obscure forums and even more obscure doctors until I had turned a rash into a death sentence. It wasn’t one of those comical over reactions to Dr Google, no hyperbole here, I had genuinely convinced myself that I was going to die. I look back on it all now and cringe and laugh and wince at myself, but at the time, it was reality for me. Nobody could talk me out of it. I was suddenly in raw and passionate despair considering all I was going to lose.

The thing about hypochondria is that it is essentially ridiculous. Look at Aunt Josephine, a character from Lemony Snicket’s third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her reputation is that of a ‘formidable woman’, a human without fear, but when she is introduced to us in the story, we learn that the death of her husband has caused her to become a shadow of her former self; a worried, paranoid, death conscious shadow. In the book and certainly in the new TV series she is portrayed as comically danger-aware. She doesn’t use her oven in case it burns the house down, and subsequently eats only cold soup, and she is deathly afraid of estate agents (If you live in London you might share the same fear). Her character is not put out there as being tragic and we aren’t particularly encouraged to feel a deep sense of sadness when considering her story, because her fears are obscure and irrational. But however ridiculous these fears seem, they were real for her, just as my fears were real for me. Whilst I was watching the new Netflix TV series and observing Aunt Josephine, I was reminded of a quote that my Dad gave me, which to this day helps me to manage anxiety and fear:

“Thoughts are not facts.”

I promise that if, like me, you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder, this is the most important thing for you to hear. Make it your mantra, say it to yourself, out loud if you can, whenever you hear that little voice in your head niggling at your insecurities and your fears. Often those who have intrusive thoughts aren’t helped by the fact they are incredibly imaginative. Thinking you might be in danger everyday is bad enough, but when you’re the kind of person who can imagine every tiny detail of that danger, from start to finish and with flourishes in between, that’s where the real unbearable fear comes from. The truth is that anxiety only gets worse when you let it, and you don’t have to. 

The presence of fear will not change your fate. If you spend your entire life locked inside a house on a clifftop, there’s no stopping a hurricane from blowing it away. Life is a mess, really, but living it is the only option. It is in the high tides that we find our strength to climb higher still. Being alive is utterly magnificent, and even though we may be frightened, we must not let fear steer our story.