It’s 8am on a cold winter morning and I’m looking out my window thinking about how much I hate the holidays.
I’m not a scrooge. It’s just… there’s one question I get asked over and over again from people I haven’t spoken to in months. And that is “How are you doing?”
I want to say “I’m good. I’m alive and healthy after having surgery to take out a large borderline malignant tumour on my pancreas.”
But the reality is, I don’t feel good and I don’t feel comfortable sharing my raw feelings at a dinner party.
What I wish I could say and only feel comfortable expressing through writing is “I’ve been struggling.”
People always told me the hardest struggle after major surgery is healing physically. And given that multiple of my digestive organs have been chopped, burned, cut out and re-plumbed, it made sense.
But this didn’t end up being true for me.
The hardest thing to overcome wasn’t the physical struggle, but the emotional struggle. No one warned me about that. Not even my oncology counsellor.
Though my name is Joy and I do my best to be happy, I haven’t been able to shake the reality that 2017 has been the darkest and most horrific year of my life.
And no matter what I do, the truth is, I no longer recognise myself.
The easiest way to describe this feeling is to ask you to imagine being trapped in a dark underground tunnel for six months. You can’t see yourself. You can’t hear anybody else. You haven’t found an exit. And you can’t find a way out of this dark hole. Nobody knows where you are or how to find you.
All you know is you’re on your own and the only way out is to find light. Because light gives you hope that you’re finally making it to the other side.
I haven’t seen the light or felt the sun on my skin in six months.
My mother says healing takes time and I need to be patient. Other surgery patients say “You won’t feel like yourself for at least a year… expect that.”
And so I’ve waited. Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, month after month.
Yet nothing has changed. Maybe they’re right and I’m impatient.
But one thing I know for sure is, I cannot wait an entire year to be happy.
And so I wonder, “What do you do when you’ve been through a difficult time and you no longer recognise who you are?”
As I stand there thinking, my alarm clock buzzes loudly. It’s now 8.30am and my iPhone reminds me it’s time for my daily workout.
I make my bed, put on my workout gear, and walk to the gym in my London apartment complex.
But as soon as I step on the treadmill and start jogging, I immediately think “I don’t want to do this.”
Little did I know, this is exactly where I need to be and that my life is going to change on this treadmill in just a few minutes.
Something I don’t expect happens.
My Spotify playlist shuffles to Diana Ross’ song “I’m Coming Out.” Though I’ve blasted this tune as loud I can hundreds of times since my mother played it for me when I was a little girl, for the first time in my entire life it strikes a chord.
Hearing Diana sing the words “The time has come for me to break out of the shell. I have to shout that I’m coming out!” lights a fire inside of me.
And then it clicks. These words give me the answer I’ve been searching for for so long. The only way out of any dark hole, is to literally come out and see the sun.
The sun represents the happiness I’ve been longing for. Health, love, freedom and wholeness. And because I haven’t experienced those things in their totality since surgery, I haven’t been happy.
But what I forgot was, the sun didn’t go anywhere. It isn’t lost to never be found. It’s been there and has been accessible to me this entire time.
The only reason I haven’t seen it is because I’ve been in the dark so long, I’ve forgotten what happiness looks like. My body and life has changed so much, I don’t know how to be happy in my altered reality.
It was in that moment that I realised, if I want to feel whole again, I must redefine what happiness looks like. For it is only when I know what happiness is, that I’ll be able to see it, reach for it and hold it.
It suddenly dawned on me the one thing that would make me happy, was running 10km in less than 60 minutes.
For many people, running 10km is a form of torture and for others it’s a form of joy. For me, I used to run 10km at least once a week for close to sixteen consecutive years. It was a part of my life when I played football for Chelsea Girls Football Club. It was a part of my marriage when Ian and I would spend every Saturday morning running through London city.
The biggest loss for me since surgery was giving up something I did every single week for sixteen years. I’ll never forget the moment I lay in hospital wondering how long it’d take for me to run 10km again. I knew I wouldn’t feel like myself until I could do this again.
As I’m jogging on the treadmill, I wonder, “What if I tried to run 10km right now?”
The devil on my shoulder, which I call “Doubtful Joy” thinks this is a terrible idea. Doubtful Joy knows it’s been only 6 months after surgery and I haven’t been strong enough to run more than 6km. She believes I’ll get tired, injured and I’ll fail.
But the angel on my shoulder, which I call “Coach Joy” has been so fired up by Diana Ross, she’s ready to do this. She believes I can do this.
And then it hits me. The tumour and surgery have affected me in ways I never imagined. They’ve changed me and have put myself, my marriage and my business on the line. The truth that no one has told me is that waiting for your happier and more confident self to return doesn’t work. The only way to find yourself and be happy again is to start doing what used to make you happy.
In this moment I decide to ignore Doubtful Joy, push past my limits and run 10km. I don’t believe I can do it… but I’m going to try.
So I’m running … 15 minutes in …
Step after step …
One foot after the other …
Then I reach 5km in 30 minutes.
I start to feel nauseous and the muscles in my thighs and calves start aching. My core is still so weak from surgery, my abdominal muscles feel they can’t work any longer.
When the discomfort intensifies, my mind gets flooded with all the voices of the people who’ve told me I can’t do this. My mother. My grandmother. My friends’ mothers and their grandmothers. My friends. All the people I’ve never met who’ve read my blog and emailed me. The nurses. The other patients. All the people who’ve told me I need to rest, I need to be patient and I need to not push myself.
My mind goes into overdrive giving me all the reasons why I can’t and shouldn’t do this.
When I reach the furthest distance I’ve run since surgery (6km in 40 minutes), I don’t feel I can run any more.
Every second that passes by feels like a minute. And every minute that passes by feels like an hour.
I want to keep running, but I want to quit even more.
Struggling to catch my breath, Doubtful Joy nags “You’re tired. Turn off the treadmill and rest.”
Coach Joy shakes her head and objects “Don’t give up. Believe in yourself. You can do this.”
Doubtful Joy argues “You can’t do this. You’re not strong enough. Keep running and you’ll get injured like everyone has told you. I’m telling you, this is a bad idea! Get off the treadmill. Be patient.”
Coach Joy grabs my attention and speaks softly “I know it’s hard. This is when you need to visualise the sun. You want to get out of the darkness? Imagine the sun, your goals, are at the end of that finish line. You’ll get everything you’ve ever dreamed of if you push past your limits and make it to the end. If you need to pause, that’s fine. But whatever you do. Don’t quit. Do not get off this treadmill until you reach 10km.”
It was in that moment that I learned something. It wasn’t enough to know what would make me happy, I literally needed to run towards it… I needed to literally run towards the life I wanted. Not sit and wait for it.
It also dawned on me that how I reach my goal doesn’t matter. Who cares if I have to crawl to the finish line. The only thing that matters is I no longer let negative thoughts limit me.
Because the 10km mark, isn’t just 10km. For me, it represents the milestone I’ve been dreaming about reaching since I was lying in hospital after my 8 hour surgery to remove my tumour. This goal motivates me to heal emotionally, if not for myself, for my husband and our future.
In this moment I decide it’s not okay to give up. And I’m going to keep running because I cannot quit on myself.
And so I keep jogging at the same pace as when I started.
When I get to 8km, I feel exhausted. Coach Joy encourages me to keep going. “Use your mind and the legs that got you out of hospital and got you walking … use them to get you to 10km.”
My heart’s racing fast. I’m panting loudly and am giving it everything I have.
Step after step. Song after song.
But my fatigue doesn’t go away. It gets worse.
And so, instead of quitting altogether I pause the treadmill, rest for 15 seconds, then turn the treadmill back on and keep going.
Until the moment I’ve been dreaming of for almost every day for the past 6 months finally arrives.
My treadmill reads “You’ve reached 10km in 59 mins 30 secs.”
As soon as I see the distance reached, I stop the treadmill and an overwhelming wave of emotion hits my entire body. I break down into tears.
Fortunately I was alone in the gym, so it didn’t matter that I probably looked like a sweaty crazy lady.
The only thing that mattered, was that I did it.
I genuinely didn’t believe I could run 10km in less than 60 minutes 6 months after my surgery. But I did it. And what made me cry was the failure and injury I feared all this time, didn’t happen.
The reality is, when you achieve something you genuinely didn’t believe you could, it changes everything.
This experience helped me to see the light for the first time in a long time. Because I made it to the other side, I could finally begin to feel the sun on my skin.
I can’t find the words to describe how freeing it is to no longer be in darkness. But you know what feels even better?
Knowing the greater level happiness we’re looking for is accessible to every single one of us at any time.
All we need to do is know what happiness looks like for us. Because when you know what will make you happy, you can reach for it. And when you reach for it, it’s only a matter of time until you hold it.
I was able to hold onto something I’d been searching for for 6 months, in less than an hour.
The question for you is, what would make you happier? And how can you grab on to it sooner rather than later?
Knowing this will give you a reason to break through the negative thoughts and limits you’ve chained yourself to. It gives you the strength you need to come out of darkness and feel the sun on your skin.
This is the story of my life, and you’re reading it as it happens.