Tuesday, 27 December 2016

2016 - Worst Year Ever

I suspect we are going to see this headline a lot on social media over the next few days. Maybe we'll see it for months and years to come too. With any luck, 2016 will go down in history as the year when things hit an all-time low before they started to improve. Along with the majority of my peers, I will, mostly, be glad to see the back of 2016 and I even feel some tendrils of hope reaching out towards 2017. But I'm wary these days. I'm not sure I want to risk hoping anymore. In my personal life, 2014 was a bad year as the year that my children's father and I separated. I thought 2015 would be better but 2015 was worse, including as it did, the heartbreaking break-up of a new relationship and the death of my mother. Again I thought 2016 had to be an improvement. How wrong I was. The heartbreak of 2016 was on a scale that I didn't even know existed. As my daughter learned this week when the doctor added a noxious red antibiotic to the disgusting yellow one that she thought was the most horrendous thing she had ever tasted, there is always something worse.

Over this last year I have found myself eligible to be part of the clubs that no-one wants to join - the online communities of the widowed and violently bereaved. For people who, this year, have felt like the ground has been torn from under their feet and that their very hearts have been ripped from their bodies, it can be galling to hear the constant refrain on social media about how bad this year has been. For people who have lost their soulmates, the fathers of their children, their income and their vision for the future, 2016 hasn't just been a bad year, it's been catastrophic. I picture a graph and a curve dipping down towards the baseline during 2016. A lot of people I know in the real world have been down there on that baseline. Understandably they have felt very low about the social and political climate, about rising poverty, about the refugee crisis, about Brexit and Trump and all the celebrities who have died this year. It has felt like our history and our culture is being eroded. It is really sad and scary. And yet, we, in the widowed community, find ourselves wanting to say, 'you think you feel bad. You should try feeling what I'm feeling.' If the baseline of that graph is ground level, some of us feel that we have spent this year in the underworld, trapped in a pothole or on the seabed, reaching for air, struggling to find some kind of foothold, trying to survive.

This year I have personally endured the kind of pain that I didn't know existed. For the first time in my life I have genuinely felt that I wasn't sure that I could go on, not just for one day, or a few days, but relentlessly day after day after day. I have cried so hard, so many times, that I couldn't breathe, that I felt I was going to die. At times the pain has been physically debilitating; there have been occasions when I've been unable to stand or walk. I still feel unsteady if try to go out in an evening. Having watched both parents die of terminal cancer and having held my newborn baby limp and breathless in my arms while I dialled 999, having been through my parent's divorce and experienced my own relationship breakdowns, having been through courtroom battles against my stepmother, having suffered from anxiety and depression and chronic illness and having cared for my son in his own chronic illness, I thought that I knew about pain. It turns out I didn't have a clue. The pain of losing is a partner is so much worse than anything I'd experienced before. The pain is indescribable and yet I have tried and tried to describe it. I don't know why. I'm a writer, it's what I do. For some reason, I want people to understand. But I know that no-one can really understand unless they've been through it. And I don't wish this pain on anyone.

Without question, 2016 has been the worst year of my life, not because of Brexit or Trump, not because of Bowie, or Victoria Wood or George Michael. The thing that makes this the worst year ever for me didn't even make the news. 2016 is the worst year ever because you died. On a global scale it is insignificant but my world was altered forever when you left it.

And yet, as I approach the end of the year, as I climb slowly upwards out of darkest days of my grief, I am reaching a position where I can breathe more easily and where the vista is expanding so that I can see beyond my own pain and start to see things from the perspective of others again. I can recognise that my view this year has been, of necessity, solipsistic. When you're struggling to stay alive, you naturally turn inward. But I can see now that I am not the only person for whom this year has been agony. I am not the only person who has lost a partner; I've come to know lots of others who have too. And we're not the only people in pain. Around the world, people are struggling and suffering. 2016 has been really truly bad for a lot of people. It will be good to see the back of it.

As I approach New Year's Eve, I think about where I was last year. At midnight, I was in your arms on the top of a hill warming myself by the bonfire that you'd built and watching the fireworks explode over Sheffield. For the rest of the bank holiday, we were cocooned at my house. We watched 'It's a Wonderful Life' and made New Year collages, envisioning how we wanted the year to be. It is an annual tradition for me and you embraced it with gusto. I look back at my collage now, as I do at the end of every year. At the top is a quote cut out from a magazine. It reads, "Those who don't jump will never fly." I jumped into your arms and together we flew. It is true. It is also true that sometimes, when you jump, you land face down in a ditch and that it's a heck of a job to get out of that ditch. At the centre of my collage is another quote attributed to the Buddha: "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." This is also true. No-one else can feel the pain that I have felt and my path is mine to walk alone. What a journey this year has been.

And yet, when I look back on 2016, it hasn't all been bad. I have written more this year than I have written in any other year of my life and WRITING is the word that I have placed, in capitals, at the centre of my new year's collage every year for as far back as I can remember. For the first time in 2016, writing has truly been at the centre of my life where it belongs. And I have learned a lot this year. As 2016 began, I was experiencing true love with you and I feel confident now that I will never be mistaken again about what love is, as I have been so many times in the past. And this year, I haven't been afraid to speak out. I have stopped worrying about what other people think. I don't think I will ever be silenced again as I have been in the past. In 2016, I also stopped pretending that I was superwoman and I learned to ask for help. And it has been overwhelming, the way people have responded to my requests. I have walked alone in my pain but there have been people willing to walk alongside me and to those people I will be forever grateful. I have lost a few friends but gained a lot more. It has been a year of extraordinary pain but also of extraordinary compassion. And that gives me hope for the future. (It's not a trade. I wouldn't swap your life for my writing, or my learning or my spiritual growth. It's just the way it is).

In some ways I don't want to leave 2016 behind. 2016 was an awful year but it was the last year that you were alive. As the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, I will be walking alone into a year that you never lived in. Sometimes I'm not sure that I want to go there. But I look back at the collage that you made and know that I must go on without you. Yes, the world is a sorry mess but I will keep on keeping on, I will look for the bright side, even in the darkness and I will continue to explore. And I will love, until my heart stops beating. Because while-ever there is love, there is hope. Yes, there is always something worse but there is always the possibility of something better too. In spite of everything, it is still a wonderful life.

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