Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Helen worked in an office and the place was alive with people. There was a buzz as colleagues collided in corridors and coffee was consumed over smiles and conversation. She spent nearly eight hours a day in this environment and, when she added her commute, she found a large percentage of her time was dedicated to work and office life.
Work gave her meaning, it provided friendships, colleagues, and connections. In fact, as Helen thought about it, she realised that work was in fact one of the most substantial factors in her life. Sure it could be annoying at times and not every day was joyous but the majority of days were fulfilling and she would look forward to seeing what each new day might bring.
One day Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, came on TV and pulled the rug from under her normality. ‘Work from home’ her boss said and she was given access codes and video conferencing.
Helen had so many questions. How long would this last? What would happen to her company? Was her job safe? Would she be made redundant soon? Was she going to get sick? Would she have to cancel her holiday?
She went home and her mind began to race. She was normally quite an optimist but her head went into dark places. She began to speculate about her future where she was unemployed living in a deserted town where no-one moved around and tumbleweed spun out of control past boarded-up shops. Her hair had lost its colour, her friends had gone and the world had become grey and uninviting.
One day something happened that made a difference to her. She was on her laptop and it sprang to life. It was her old boss from her previous company checking to see how she was. She took the opportunity to unload her concerns and dumped all her questions on him. She demanded answers and wanted to know what he could do to sort things out for her.
He listened hard and when she had finished he said a few things that resonated.
‘No one has the answers you are seeking’ he said. ‘It is not possible to give you any reassurance at all. There are so many conflicting pieces of information that it is impossible to navigate through to a common truth. You have to live with that reality and that uncertainty. The question is not “when will this be over?” but “how do I get through these vague and difficult times knowing that things are going to be confusing for a while”’.
He then asked her a question and paused: ‘When have you been uncertain in life and things have felt out of control?’. Helen could think of a couple of moments when her life had been at a very low ebb. Problems with boyfriends were top of the list when she was unexpectedly dumped and left hung out to dry.
‘How did you deal with it?’ he asked. Helen reflected that she never did get to the bottom of the reasons behind the ending of relationships but she had learnt to cope with the change and the uncertainty it generated. Friends were important, coming to terms with it were important, and putting on a brave face and facing the challenge certainly helped.
He went on to say: ‘When you don’t have information, you tend to create a reality that becomes real to you. In tough times, we can find ourselves creating pictures that are bleak, the very worst case scenarios, and we respond emotionally as if they are real. If you talk to your friends who are feeling depressed you will probably find they are in part causing their own downward spiral of emotions by focussing on the very worst possible outcomes’.
Then he said something that really helped. ‘I will give you a guarantee. Life over the next few weeks is going to be awful. The news will be terrible, Boris won’t bring a smile to your face and your friends will be concerned and worried. It will be shit.’
Helen responded that this was hardly cheering her up but her boss explained something.
‘When people go into hospital for an operation a surgeon has a couple of choices. One of them is to say: “You will soon feel better and be back on your feet” or “when you wake up you will experience pain and discomfort for at least four weeks”. So the person goes to hospital, has the operation and then wakes up. Which advice from the surgeon has the best impact on the patient?’ he asked.
Helen thought about it and realised that the honest, realistic advice was more comforting. Those waking up and expecting pain and discomfort were able to deal with it much more easily. Those who expected to be fine were shocked and worried by how bad they felt.
‘It is interesting that the recovery rates from patients who are told the truth about the aftermath of an operation report recovering much more rapidly than those under the illusion that all will be fine. What I am saying’, he said ‘is that life is going to be uncertain, unpleasant, vague and disconcerting for a while. But now that you know that perhaps you can live with it. I can’t fix that reality but what I can do is to suggest you do things that make you feel able to deal with it. Connect with people, eat well, drink plenty of water, sleep well, chat to people and keep your mind active. Don’t expect things to be better for a while and don’t expect instant answers to your many questions. Just remember that it will be alright in the end … and if it is not alright then it is not the end”.
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