Saturday 23 October 2021

Finding yourself in what is lost - Liz Kessler

Being a writer has been at the heart of my life for the last 20 years. My year revolves around book deadlines. My days revolve around word targets. My thoughts revolve around my characters. Even our holidays are often tagged on to the end of research trips or book tours. For me, writing has become inseparable from my identity. It’s not just what I do; it’s a fundamental part of who I am. 

So what happens when you take it away? Who are you then?


Over the years, there have been times when writing has slipped away from me, but never to the extent that it’s happening for me now. 


I left my last publisher after 17 years, for many reasons, but amongst them was the fact that I was tired. I was exhausted. I’d written seventeen novels in that time and I was emptied out. I have always known that being a published author is an absolute privilege, and I am grateful for it every day. But in my commitment to my work, I had also started to feel that I was losing touch with the joy and the creative exploration of writing. I needed to restock the well. 


My intention at that time was to take a year off completely and let myself - my joy, my energy, my creativity - recover. What I in fact ended up doing was writing a book that had been quietly simmering in the background for 10 years, and which turned out to be the most incredible journey but also the most creatively and emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done. The end result was a book that I am more proud of than anything I’ve ever achieved in my life. 

But if I had been running low on creative fuel before I'd started writing this book, I was completely emptied out by the time I'd finished. Luckily I had only signed a one book deal with the wonderful Simon and Schuster so there was no pressure to do anything except recover and enjoy the journey to publication. Except the world had different plans.


Within a month of signing my new contract, we were in a global pandemic. Add in a few serious family-related issues and a decision to completely uproot our lives from Cornwall to live first in a van, then on a narrowboat and finally in a lovely new house in the north-west, and we have a recipe for burn out. 


And then I got Covid. When it happened (in July) I was pretty poorly for a couple of weeks. At the time, I thought it didn’t quite feel like the ‘mild infection’ that was advertised for those who, like me, were double jabbed. But still, I was grateful that I’d had the vaccinations and assumed I would get better after too long. And actually, a few weeks in, I did start to feel a bit better. Phew, I thought. I’m on the way out. Normal life was starting, very slowly, to return. Then – BAM. I had my first relapse. Back to bed for five days. Over the next couple of months, this became a repeating pattern. Bed rest for a few days. Gradually start to feel a bit better. Believe I’m well enough to do a few normal things. Crash and burn. 


I’m now at the three month point, where it’s officially been diagnosed as Long Covid, and from everything I’ve read and watched and studied and researched, I know that this is more than likely to be how things are going to be for at least six months. In fact, if I get away with six months I’ll be very lucky.


For those who don’t really know what Long Covid is like, here’s a quick insight. Bear in mind it’s different for everyone, but from conversations with others, I think many of my symptoms and experiences are very common.


Constant fatigue like I’ve never known it. It’s not like normal tiredness; it’s a heavy, intensely physical feeling as if there are weights attached to every limb that make moving about extremely difficult. When you do move about, if you do more than shuffle across the room, you need to sit down and get your breath back. If you go upstairs, you have to wait at the top for your heart rate to come  back down to a normal rate. If you walk anywhere for more than five minutes, your legs feel like they’re going to give way, like those old wooden toys with an animal on top and a button you press underneath that makes all its limbs collapse. 

Work is impossible. Your brain is scrambled most of the time. Your thoughts are foggy and vague. Your concentration span is minimal. Even sitting at your desk and typing is out of the question for longer than a few minutes at a time – on a good day. (Writing this blog is my biggest writing achievement for months!)


Sleep is generally disturbed but at least it’s rest and you wake up every morning hoping that your body will feel a bit better as a result of the rest. Which means that every day starts with the crushing disappointment when you get out of bed and your legs drag you across the room to the loo in the same heavy, shuffling way they do every other morning. 


Sometimes you have a good day. You don’t feel so bad, your energy levels are up a bit, you can manage a bit more. You can’t stop your brain from wondering if this means you’re getting better. Sometimes the good day turns into a good few days and you start to feel more confident that you are starting to climb out of this thing. You manage a few activities and still feel OK…


…And then the crash comes. Again and again and again. Each time it happens, your mood nosedives a bit more. The harshness of the physical crash is intensified by the crushing disappointment of realising that you’d let yourself hope - again - and Covid has kept a poker face and won another round. It feels like that old Peanuts sketch where Lucy manages to convince Charlie Brown over and over again that she won’t whip the ball away when he comes to kick it. But she does – every time. 

Eventually you realise that you have to stop hoping you’ll get better. Instead, you need to work on accepting where you are now, in this moment. Rather than look around you and wonder where your life has gone, you have to look inside and find it there instead. Rather than define yourself in terms of all the things you do, you have to find a way to let yourself just be.


Which leads me to now. 


I’ve cried with sadness at missing seeing the autumn colours in the nearby woods. In fact, I have seen them just once. We bought a second-hand mobility scooter so I could get out to the park with my wife and dog. I thought it was the answer, but have since realised that even that is a bit much for me at the moment. But I did see them. And hey, guess what the autumn leaves tell us? Their message couldn’t be more obvious: let go


I’ve struggled with the grief of my new book, half-written and abandoned for three months. Writing has always been my way of making sense of the world, of keeping my mental health in balance. When the world is so far past making sense anyway, how am I going to cope if I don’t have writing to keep me centred?


Sitting here thinking about it, an answer came to me really strongly. My job as an author isn’t always to write. Sometimes it’s to plan; sometimes it’s to play; sometimes it’s to stare into space or take a long walk and let my subconscious brain work things out. 


And sometimes it’s simply to sit and wait and let the well refill. Weirdly, as I’m writing this, it’s started pouring with rain. As if nature itself is telling me, yes, see? Just let go and trust me and I will refill that well for you.


I’ve long believed that every book has its seasons. Maybe my biggest lesson here is that we do too. I don’t know how long it will take to fully learn this lesson. It might be another three months, it might be another year. But what I do know is that everything in nature needs time to work its magic quietly, calmly, slowly, often out of sight, if it is to stand any chance of growth.


Maybe the whole point of what’s happening now is for me to realise that actually I had already lost sight of myself. I’d stopped listening to what I needed. Perhaps Covid hasn’t whipped my life away from under me. It might possibly be the thing that will bring it back. 

Liz's website is here

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Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for writing this, Liz. It sounds melodramatic, but it was a privilege to read it.

Joan Lennon said...

I mean, it sounds melodramatic of me to say it was a privilege to read it, but it really was.

Liz Kessler said...

Thank you Joan. That’s very lovely of you xx

Unknown said...

Hoping you feel better soon Liz.. thinking of you alot xx

Susan Price said...

God Liz, so sorry to learn you're having such trouble. It seems glib to say, 'Hope you recover soon,' but I do hope you make a stronger, linger-lasting recovery soon.

And as I have vulnerable relatives, even if double-jabbed, it makes me determined to continue taking precautions, for their sake.

Lari Don said...

What a moving and perfect description of the loss of identity caused by long covid (or other chronic conditions). Thank you so much for sharing it, Liz. I have had long covid for 19 months now and the thing I am struggling with most is the loss of my sense of self as a writer. Your use of the word ‘grief’ about the novel you've had to put away struck me bone-deep. In March 2020, I was working on the first novel in a trilogy, and I now don’t know if I will ever finish that story - either the first novel, or the overarching story across all three imagined novels. (I am slowly working on a picture book just now, which is a wonderful and joyful process, but it’s not the same as creating a world across three novels. ) So, yes, I feel grief for the world and the characters that I have lost and may never regain. Though, Liz, you have certainly not lost your way with words nor your ability to give the reader a new way of seeing things. The giraffe with the suddenly collapsing legs – that is EXACTLY what a long covid energy crash feels like for me! Thank you for giving me a way to explain it to people who think I’m just a wee bit tired… Thank you so much again for sharing this post. It’s beautiful and brave and I am sending you best wishes for a steady, gentle and ultimately successful recovery.

Liz Kessler said...

Thank you for the lovely comments all. And special massive hugs to you Lari. You know what it's like and your comment and recognition is affirming. Thank you and lots of love to you xx

Anne Booth said...

Dear Liz, that was an amazing post. I am so sorry you, and Lari, have long covid. I hope that research finds a cure soon, and in the meantime, that you both recover your health, and your sense of selves.

Sue Purkiss said...

Just exactly what Anne says. Thanks for this lovely post, positive despite all you're going through, and hope you and Lari will steadily improve.

Unknown said...

You've represented us Long Haulers well Liz. Only I was not able to put it into words so eloquently as you have. Your talent with words is apparent and still there. I'm sending a copy to my hubby in an effort for him to comprehend what I feel... crashing and all. Represent us dear one & keep writing!

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for sharing all this here, Liz.

What a thoughtful and detailed account of how the dreaded Long Covid hits all parts of life, family & friends. So sorry. It must be very hard to have all your professional energy and all the active life you led before fade away for solong a while.

Do hope that you start to feel stronger and better bit by bit over the next few months. Love the photos!