Article by Alison Murdoch
On a sunny Monday afternoon in July, I was taking a break from the computer on our front step in South London when my 58 year-old husband Simon unexpectedly appeared at the gate looking like a man in his mid-eighties. I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Within an hour he was delirious, writhing and spitting on a trolley in Accident & Emergency like something out of The Exorcist. By the end of the evening he was in a life-threatening coma. The doctors told me that even if he survived, he was unlikely to avoid brain damage.
Simon was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a little-known illness of the brain, and kept alive by machines. Every day I got out of bed at 6am and cycled to the Intensive Care Ward of St Thomas’ Hospital not knowing whether I would find him dead or alive. All I could do was to sit at his bedside hoping and praying that the person I loved most in the world would eventually return to me. After five long weeks he suddenly opened his eyes and started coming back to life.
Over the following months and years I found the shift from career woman to carer immensely challenging, but eventually Simon made a complete – and some would say miraculous – recovery. One of my main sources of support was my Tibetan Buddhist teachers and friends at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. I don’t know how I would have survived this terrifying experience without the teachings of the Buddha.
Here are five ways in which Buddhism helped me cope with trauma.
- MANAGE YOUR MIND
“We are shaped by our thoughts,” said The Buddha, “what we think is what we become.” Throughout our ordeal, my morning meditation practice in the hospital chapel gave me a precious break from the relentless anxiety. It also helped me remember that we are not our thoughts, and that we have a choice in how we react to the world around us. Even on the worst days – for example, when Simon caught pneumonia – it was immensely helpful to remind myself that I was something more and different from the fear and dread that coursed through me.
“All conditioned things are impermanent. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” For more than twenty years, I had been listening to the Buddha’s teachings on how it’s completely illogical to expect things to stay the same, and the opposite of what really happens in the natural world. When crisis struck, this may be why I found myself unexpectedly resilient. “A day when you do not remember death is a day wasted” is another Buddhist saying. Reflecting on these issues in advance – for example by attending a Death Café – can help us be better prepared for the unexpected.
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection,” said the Buddha. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we take care of anyone else? One of the ways I nurtured myself was to call up everyone in my address book and fix lunch dates at the hospital. Family and friends proved to be a lifeline, and we’ve remained closer than we ever were before.
“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world, above below and across” said the Buddha. I discovered that hospital life is characterized by extraordinary love and kindness, whether from the nurses and doctors who took 24/7 care of Simon or the patients’ families who offered each other much-needed comfort and support. And whenever I found the strength to reach out to others, I felt stronger within myself. “Whenever possible be kind. It is always possible,” says the Dalai Lama.
Buddhism offers a very particular definition of love: it’s simply wanting someone else to be happy. Simon’s illness has completely turned our relationship around – from ‘good enough’ to something far deeper and more meaningful. I have also developed a new capacity to forgive. For example, there’s no point getting angry with someone who is re-learning how to eat, walk and tie their shoelaces. They are simply doing their best, as we all are. Simon and I have now been together for 24 years, and have never been so close. “Happiness is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions,” says The Dalai Lama. At the age of 58, I’ve discovered that the key to my happiness doesn’t lie in smart clothes, fine food or expensive holidays, but in the small everyday acts of showing love and care for each other.
Bed 12 by Alison Murdoch is out now, published by Hikari Press, priced at £9.99. 50% of the royalties from Bed 12 go to the Encephalitis Society. For more information about encephalitis visit www.encephalitis.info.