How a 'Year of Yes' Backfired - Coping after a stroke.
Last year I read a book by the inspirational, and seemingly unstoppable, Shonda Rhimes called 'The Year of Yes'. I find her to be such an inspiration and admire her work. Grey’s Anatomy anyone? The book doesn’t advocate wildly saying yes to everything no matter what the consequence but it does encourage you to take chances, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Basically, it was written for me.
Last summer my debut novel - Sticks and Stones - was about to be released and I was scared and excited. I wanted it to be a success. Who wouldn't? I feared disapproval, I cowered at the thought of one-star reviews, at the possibility that only my mother would buy the book. But how could I get it any exposure?
I wanted to give my little book every opportunity to fly so when I was invited to appear at events, speak on the radio, be interviewed on local television, I decided to say ‘yes’. Who knew where these opportunities might lead? Speak to university students doing an MA in publishing? Yes. Write a short story for a Stroke charity? Yes. A panel about violence against women in fiction? Yes.
Harrogate? York? Hull? Scotland? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
It had worked for Shonda, why not me? Imagine what I could be missing out on if I said ‘no’. BUT the difference between Shonda and I is that she knows her limitations – and she was kind to herself. I have been known to be single minded – some might even call it stubborn – so even if I didn’t want to, I said ‘yes’ anyway. I worked through the stress, the fatigue, the signs that my body was shutting down. I cried on trains taking me away from my family, and sat miserably in hotel room nursing crippling migraines.
And then I hit a wall.
As a new year ticked over, I began to feel a ‘no’ coming on. It was subtle at first, an inkling that something had to change. I was mentally and physically drained. I came down with flu, one of my sons was off school for weeks with shingles and then mumps. I was working on my second book, Safe House, and was happy with how it was coming together but I was pushing myself hard to get it finished. But it was okay because I was going to make some changes. Soon. As soon as Safe House was finished I was going to stop working at the weekends, I would cut down on social media and take Fridays off to go and walk in the park and read books.
On Wednesday I handed in my final edits for Safe House. On Thursday my son had his first full day back at school in five weeks. On Friday (my first day off!!) I had a stroke.
It was nothing really (!), just a TIA (transient ischemic attack). I woke up with a headache and a terrible pain in my shoulder. I got the kids ready for school, had breakfast, jumped in the shower. But when I looked in the mirror, it wasn’t my face looking back at me. My mouth was crooked, my eye drooping. I touched my fingers to my temple and it was numb. I was convinced it wasn’t a stroke because I could move my arms and my speech wasn’t slurred.
I called 111 for advice and an ambulance was at my door within ten minutes. I cried, not because I was scared, but because I hated making a scene. In hospital I had the best care I could have possibly had and every test available to me. I had none of the risk factors they associated with a Stroke. They told me I had to get a handle on my stress levels. Not push myself so much. Ha!
I’ll make a full recovery. In some ways nothing has changed, and in other ways EVERYTHING has. I was as scared as I have ever been and I’ve had more than one occasion when I thought I was going to die. My right side is still a little weak and memory a little stringy. I can’t always remember the word I want. I’m a writer – I need words – what if I couldn’t write?
And then I realised it didn’t matter if my book didn’t hit best seller lists, it only mattered that I wrote. I need to write. It’s my therapy, my hobby, my job, and my creative outlet. The fear that it could be taken from me, or worse - that I could be taken from my family - has shocked me into the biggest wakeup call of my life.
No, I will not make myself ill on the off chance I might sell a handful of books. No, I will not miss my kids’ school play, or cricket match because I am stressing over deadlines. No, I will not miss my husband’s birthday for the third year running because I’m attending a literary festival. I won't read negative reviews. I won't compare myself to other authors who are all seemingly getting six-figure advances and having the film rights to their books bought by Reese Witherspoon. No.
Because none of it matters if I lose the ability to do what I love, or lose the love for what I do. It’s harder to say no than yes. Or, at least, it is to me. I’m a people pleaser and I hate to let people down. But I’ve started saying no and it’s the most powerful word I’ve ever used.
When I’ve backed out of a couple of events and engagements recently I’ve told the organisers that I have to look after my health – and guess what? No-one minds!! I mean, really, they positively encourage this kind of thing. The world has not stopped turning because I haven’t been on Twitter. Instagram isn’t missing me. I’ve taken a month off and nothing bad has happened! My agent and publishers are actively protecting me. My family are pleased to be able to rally around me. Everyone is winning.
The only person putting pressure on myself was me. I set unrealistic targets, was too tough on myself. You could say the TIA was the best thing that has happened to me in a while. I’ve learned a lot about my limitations. I have discovered that I have the best friends, and that nothing bad happens when you ask for help. I have learned that I am not alone and I don’t have to do everything myself. And I have learned that I never, ever HAVE to say ‘yes’.