What is greatness? Part 4: The journey to healing begins

My neurologist had finally figured out what was wrong with me. I started reading up on functional neurological disorder (FND), also known as dissociative disorder. Over the years, I had become so disconnected from myself that my body was no longer willing to participate in the charade that I had mastered. It was fighting me, forcing me to start taking a serious look at who I was and who I wanted to become.

My treatment was going to be multipronged. I had a neuropsychiatrist, a neuropsychologist and a neuro physiotherapist. The first step was understanding my condition and what had led to it. My family and I attended a course, and as the presentation went on, I was ticking off every symptom in my head. I felt vindicated, validated that what I was experiencing was not just in my head. It was real. Dissociative disorders are so complex, and I’m not going to attempt to explain the differences. I can only talk about my own experience. Dissociative orders are usually triggered by a very traumatic event that results in your body shutting down to protect/prevent your mind from dealing with your trauma. In my case, it had been years of sadness, and the main trigger was my cancer. The symptoms presented in different ways.

One day I would wake up and not be able to walk. I would be paralyzed from the waist down. Other times I wouldn’t be able to talk. The words would be in my head, but I was unable to articulate them. There was a time where I couldn’t write anymore. That lasted for about a month or two. I was so terrified. I remember an incident where I was at the police station and had to do an affidavit. My hands were weak. I couldn’t hold the pen. I remember the policeman who was assisting me looking at me with suspicion. I was so embarrassed. Other times I’d be talking, and then mid-conversation, my throat would just close up, and no sound would come out. I would also have memory gaps. To this day, there are things I don’t remember happening, even though my husband assured me that they did indeed occur. I became antisocial. The prospect of meeting up with my friends or family or even just going out in public became so daunting for me. I didn’t want to leave my house.

Part of my treatment was for me to develop a routine. Leave the house, even if it meant just taking a short walk around the complex we were living in at the time. Lucky for me, it had beautiful gardens, where I could just go out and enjoy the trees and flowers. The next part was to go for therapy and start talking about my feelings again. This was a lot harder than I had anticipated, but with each passing week, it became easier. I could finally see the light. I was starting to envision what going back to work would look like for me. The possibility of work was there again in whatever form it took. Healing was far from over, and I don’t think we completely heal as human beings. We just learn to accept and live with what we’ve been through. Achieving greatness seemed possible again. Social settings were no longer so uncomfortable for me. My blackouts were under control, and I was able to identify the triggers and thus react accordingly. I managed to spend more time with my friends and travel on my own without worrying about blacking out for the first time in years. I was present in my daughter’s life and provided her with the emotional support she needed to deal with the trauma of having her mother sick all the time. The entire family was in therapy and working through our pain and loss. The future looked promising. What happened next was something that no one was prepared for. No one saw this coming.

What is greatness? Part 3: Heartbreak

Have you ever had your heart broken? I mean, really broken? Heartbreak is something that will affect us all at some point in our lives. After discovering that my cancer had come back and was in my lungs this time, I was devastated. I had experienced hurt before. Relationships ended, losing touch with a friend and missing out on that “dream” job that I was so sure about and death. This was different. It cut so deep, I was numb.

Three nerve-wracking weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery. It was successful, but this time I required chemo. Still, I put on a brave face and was ready to face all the physical side effects. My mental well-being was again on the back burner. I was to have chemo sessions every two weeks for six months. The first session went fine, and I thought to myself, “Hey, this isn’t so bad”. I could not have been more spectacularly mistaken. Within a month, the physical toll chemo took on me was near unbearable. It was then that I slowly started disconnecting from myself. I wouldn’t allow my mind to process the turmoil, the mental and physical trauma, and, unbeknownst to me, I was slowly making things worse. My natural instinct of trying to protect others and myself from my feelings kicked in. Greatness started slipping further and further away from me. How would I fulfil my life’s purpose in this state?

I was terrified, yet every two weeks, I put on a brave face when I went for chemo. I remember a room full of big red chairs, chairs that looked and smelt like death. Death was all around me, the pungent smell of it all-consuming and overwhelming. With each passing session, a piece of me was left in that room. My soul and spirit were truly being tested. Repeatedly I asked, “Why God? Why is this happening? My daughter is only two years old, and she needs her mother.” I could see the confused terror in her eyes every time she looked at me. Wondering when her mom was going to disappear for days again.

My husband looked defeated. All the love he had given me couldn’t spare me from this. He put on a brave face, comforting family members and keeping our household going. I could see that it was taking its toll on him, but he remained strong for me and for everyone as a proud man. Our lives had been turned upside down, plans halted. Tragedy had befallen us. At the time, we’d only been married for 3 years. We hadn’t had the opportunity to enjoy our marriage and our daughter. We’d both wanted to be parents for the longest time, and finally, our dream had come true. Somehow, through the pain, we managed to find solace in each other. The three of us were closer than ever. We retreated into our bubble and let very few people in.

After six months, chemo was done, and with that came new questions. I was lost. Who was I, if not the cancer patient? I had no routine anymore. It sounds strange, yes, but this had been such a massive part of me that I had to let go. I was cancer-free and in remission; however, my mental well-being was centre stage again. In the months after, I was hospitalised numerous times because of blackouts. The initial diagnosis was epilepsy, but scans showed no abnormality in my brain. I was so heavily medicated, barely lucid most of the time I inevitably lost all confidence in my body. I didn’t trust that I could do basic things anymore, and it turns out I was right. Indeed greatness was out of reach at this point. I was but a shadow of my former self. I couldn’t be left alone for long periods lest I have an attack, collapse and hurt myself.
Basic activities such as driving became unfeasible for me. The months turned into a year, and my attacks became increasingly unpredictable. The medication wasn’t working. More tests followed, and about two years after chemo ended, I was admitted into the Milpark Hospital Epilepsy Monitoring Unit. After five days of constant monitoring, we finally had a diagnosis. My Neurologist told me I had functional neurological disorder (FND), simply put, my brain and my body were not communicating properly. ” This is an absolute disaster,” he said. “It has been going on for over 20 years. Did you know that you don’t really sleep? I watched you sleep, but I could see you weren’t really sleeping. When I look at you, I see someone who is so traumatised, terrified and hurt. This is very upsetting…” as he spoke, his voice started fading away. I couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore. I was stuck on ” this is an absolute disaster.”

Another heartbreak. Greatness was most certainly unattainable now.

What is greatness Part 2: I was hooked, seduced by the idea of greatness

I was convinced that achieving greatness was solely dependent on having an illustrious corporate career after all that’s what I had been taught growing up. When I landed my first job at age of 23, I wasted no time trying to move up the ladder as fast as I possibly could. Even then, something didn’t feel right, but I had a big student loan to pay off so there was really no option for me to take a break and find myself. So, I was firmly on the hamster wheel and before I knew it, I had been working for 15 years. Moving from one company to the next trying to find the perfect fit and increase my salary. What I was in denial about was that this wasn’t working at all for me. The signs were there, but I chose to ignore them.

In 2009, I started to unravel. It was so gradual, imperceptible. My instinct was to look for another job at another company, surely that would help me find happiness at work and get me closer to greatness. In 2010 I found a new job and moved into what became over time, the most depressing, life sucking, and soul crushing environment I’ve ever worked in. Six months into the job I started to feel myself go into emotional, physical, and mental decline. I was so unhappy that I couldn’t function at work. By 2014, I was married, pregnant and ready to go on maternity leave but all I felt was my brain wanting to shut down. My spirit was depleted, my light dimmed, and I was just a shell. I didn’t realise that I was depressed. I remember one morning driving to work and pulling over on the side of the road and crying.  I called my boss and told him that I wasn’t well. I couldn’t see myself in the office that day. I was broken and yet I wouldn’t admit it to myself. How did I end up here? Things were so bad that there were murmurs around the office of letting me go. I was so stressed, heartbroken, exhausted, humiliated and had lost my self-confidence. It didn’t help that I was having a difficult pregnancy and I went on maternity leave two months before my daughter was due. 

When I returned to work after four months I had a plan. I would work back my leave and then once again move to another company. I did find another job, but I hadn’t dealt with anything. I didn’t go for therapy, I just soldiered on. I still hadn’t answered the question, “what is greatness for you Nomhle?”. In the new job I had great work life balance, but there was still something missing. I put in a good year of work and in December 2015, two months after my 40th birthday, I discovered something that would lead me directly to where I am today. I was diagnosed with stage two colon cancer. My world came to a standstill. My instinct was to go into fight mode. I must beat this. I’ll have the surgery, and everything will be fine. I spent Christmas that year with this hanging over my head. Looking at my extended family around me enjoying themselves, whilst I held on to this secret. To this day I still don’t understand why I felt ashamed to tell my family. A part of me thought that all that partying in my 20’s and early 30’s had led to this. Could I have taken better care of myself? My husband and immediate family were so supportive and kept my secret. 

Early 2016, I underwent surgery, and it was a success. The tumor had been resected and after two months I went back to work. I was back on the hamster wheel again until August of 2016 when all the lies I’d been telling myself finally caught up with me. I had a breakdown. I had no choice, but to stop. Literally, stop. I was driving in Sandton where I had driven for years and got completely disoriented during peak traffic and had to pull over with no idea where I was. What happened between that point and being admitted to hospital is still a blur. I spent 21 days in a psych ward and was put on antidepressants. I underwent psychotherapy and I was forced to talk about my feelings and honestly, I would’ve rather had a root canal than do that. It was so uncomfortable and jarring for me. I can only describe it as my body had disconnected from my brain and refused to respond. The time had come for me take a hard look at myself.

I returned to work after two months. Turns out two months is not enough time to deal with over two decades of traumas, fears, insecurities, and pain. I needed more time. Barely two weeks in I stopped working and went on temporary disability. I went into aggressive psychotherapy and in January 2017, whilst in hospital after having collapsed at home, I got devasting news. An x-ray of my lungs had revealed a suspicious lesion and the ER doctor who had admitted me came to tell me they were sending my x-rays to a pulmonologist. Two days later the pulmonologist came to see me and said she was almost certain this was cancer but would bring in an oncologist to be certain. It was late on a Friday afternoon when the oncologist came to see me and confirmed that yes, the cancer was back. I died inside.

What is greatness?

When you are in your twenties you see yourself as somewhat invincible. You have youth on your side and in your mind, you believe you can do or should be able to do anything you put your mind to. You’re young, energetic and you’re smart. The world is a place where you can realise your dreams, after all, that is what the movies have led us to believe. You model yourself on the characters you’ve watched on screen all your life. You look at older women around you. Your mother, grandmother, aunts and think to yourself, I’m definitely going to have a better life than they do. You even judge them for their choices wondering how they could allow themselves to be in these situations that you deem less than desirable. You grow up and realise that life is not binary. It is nuanced, it is complicated, exciting, heartbreaking and requires flexibility. You have to look through all the noise, the façade, the avatars and the optics that are presented to you. A deeper understanding of what is actually happening around you is required.

In the past my life was largely based on what was presented before me. The pretty picture, the happiness, the fun and the seemingly successful and not so successful. I knew that there was something more, but I chose to ignore it because I wanted to fit in. I would see things differently from people, look into their souls and at the time I didn’t understand why that was. Why certain people or events gave me an uneasy feeling in my stomach. You know something is off, but you don’t know how to process it in your mind. You throw your thoughts out to the world, but then the response is not what you expected so you shut down. You retreat to your natural state of not wanting to rattle the cages, make people uncomfortable because what you’re seeing is different from them. Slowly you start hiding yourself more and more. Blending in all the while not feeling quite settled. You question every decision you make, seek counsel from sources that don’t really add much value to you. You are polite so naturally you don’t tell people that what they’re saying doesn’t resonate with you, you push on and nod in agreement. This goes on for years. You try to be all that is expected of you from your family, friends, colleagues and even yourself on some level. You are caught up in a false sense of self which will inevitably end in a train wreck. Oh, but this doesn’t happen overnight, it builds up over years, decades even, until one day you are forced to take a hard look at yourself. You have no choice, but to stop and face yourself in your most vulnerable state. This is when the journey really begins.

We all start out with plans for where we want to be by a certain age and what we want to have achieved by then. Some of us are fortunate enough that most of what we wrote down in that journal 15, 20 years ago has come to pass. The rest of us like me, are not. I barely remember what I wanted 15 years ago. What I thought I wanted is of no consequence now because I have had to rebuild my life after having gone through some shit. All my worst fears have come true. Everything that I thought I could never survive has happened. So where do I go from here? What do I do with the rest of my life? How do I tell my story in way that inspires others or at least gives them comfort that even though you didn’t get all the things on your list, you can still go on to have a fulfilling life? The world has a very finite way of measuring greatness. The accolades, center stage, the attention and money. Finding what greatness means to me is a journey I have decided to explore. I am defining what greatness is for me. It’s not an easy task, but I know in my heart that it will be worth it.

The most important thing about finding greatness for yourself is to make sure that it is a true reflection of who you are. It requires you going deeper into your core being, letting go of belief systems that have been drummed into your head for years. Rewriting the stories that you have been telling yourself about who you are. The mind is such a difficult thing to change because it is filled with so much noise. Your fears, your traumas, insecurities all cause you to build a certain narrative about yourself. In all this you forget to stop and truly look at yourself, I mean taking a really hard look at yourself. So I asked myself again what greatness means to me, is it what I imagine it to be or something else completely? Will I find greatness in the most unexpected place or thing? The key for me is to remain open as I navigate this new chapter in my life. I’m not the person I was 10 or even 5 years ago. That person is gone and is never coming back. People often talk about going back to their true self, I think it is time for me to go towards my true self. This is something only I can define for myself. I believe in my heart that in doing this, I will find my greatness.

Scorpio, mother, daughter, wife and all around badass

I decided to write a blog because I felt that I have something to say about my experiences in life

The first series of my blogs are about exploring what greatness means to me. I haven’t entirely defined it yet, but I’m hoping that through my writing and further understanding of who I am and what I want from this life, I will achieve greatness.

We all start with a particular idea of what we want our future to look like and how we will make that happen. We don’t prepare for some of life’s worst cruelties that we face in our prime. We pivot, carve out a new future with what we have left. Sometimes it may seem like a loss, but if you look closely enough, you’ll find that you have gained so much. The lessons learnt are so invaluable, and they will help you to navigate almost anything in life. The key is to remain open and flexible. To allow yourself to evolve, to learn, and ultimately to feel everything. To cry, to laugh, be sad and jump for joy.

I am looking forward to where my writing is going to take me!