by Alice Thomson

When I think of the word survival, it conjures up many images. More often than not it’s an image of a character in a horror, thriller or zombie narrative, where the individual does everything physically or logically possible to live through the trauma and make it to the end of the film, or to the next episode. A person’s strength of will to keep living is what drives them to survive the zombie apocalypse, murderer or demon. These surviving characters are always physically and/or mentally strong, or become so quickly. Their motive for survival? They have future plans, information they must pass on, people that rely on them – in some way, their life holds value. Once this traumatic episode is over, they can get back to those lives. They survive in order to find peace, joy, fulfilment, happiness. To reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

I once saw a t-shirt with the words “zombie bait” written on the front. Part of me really wanted to buy it to wear whenever I was on crutches or in my wheelchair.  I thought it would be dead funny.

For me, I often feel like I am barely surviving. Part of my condition means I have flare-ups. This is when my chronic pain becomes acute. Often this can happen for silly reasons. My most recent occurred because I dislocated my hip rolling over in bed. I know, how ridiculous is that? On an average day my pain level is around a two or three. I have come to accept this as a normal level of sensation in my body and, through different strategies, it’s manageable.

During my latest flare-up my pain level was at a six or seven over a period of about two months. There were days where I sat at the top of my stairs dreading the process of getting down them. In the worst moments, sleeping and eating didn’t happen much either. Those days I felt like a failure. I think of the things people do – the soldiers, the athletes, the builders, police officers or the people that spend half an hour at the gym – while I can’t even look after myself.

Let’s be honest. If I was ever in one of those films, I’d be the first to die. I know I’m being overdramatic, and that my flare-ups end. My pain gets back to a two and all is dandy. When I say they end it sounds like they just stop. I wish it were that easy. It can take a lot of work and several months to come out of a flare-up. The thing that I have to come to terms with is that this narrative never ends. When I survive a flare-up I don’t get my happy ending, the light at the end of the tunnel; I get more tunnel. At one wrong moment I’ll dislocate doing something equally mundane as the last time; back to square one. Maybe life should be more than about just surviving.


Image credit: Julia Margaret Cameron

Another thought that comes to mind when talking about survival is one concerning Darwin. Often when we talk about the theory of evolution, we are drawn to the idea of natural selection being about survival of the fittest. Darwin came to this revelation in the late 1860’s, during his time on the Galapagos Islands fairly early on in his study of evolution. However, the term ‘survival of the fittest’ is a simplification of his true interpretation of evolution. Often when we think of survival of the fittest we think of the strongest beings outliving the weaker ones. Darwin is frequently misquoted as saying:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

it isn’t specifically the strongest that survive, but those that most accurately perceive their environment and adapt to it.

This is actually a quote from Leon Megginon, a teacher as well as an author of textbooks. His interpretation of Darwin’s theory was that it isn’t specifically the strongest that survive, but those that most accurately perceive their environment and adapt to it. Although Darwin never said this himself, the quote is still relevant.

This way of thinking about survival gives me more comfort. It’s not about how physically or mentally strong I am. It’s about how I adapt to the situation I am in. It means I have to be more creative in how I live my life. It means I have to be okay with that, and I’m learning to be so.

We don’t have to be the strongest to survive life, we just have to be able to adapt in order to start enjoying it.

One way I’ve done this is by creating a flare-up plan and a box of useful things that goes with it. During a flare-up I don’t often think straight, so putting together a plan of things I can do to help relieve a flare-up is very helpful. They can be simple things that bring about mild relief or help me out of a flare more quickly. Such as, have healthy frozen food that goes in the oven so I can get the nutrition I need. Or use my TENS machine, something I always forget when I’m in pain. Ask for help – that can be a hard one. And celebrate the small victories, because they are still victories. Acknowledging those and being kind to yourself are essential to surviving a flare-up. In doing these things I hope to stop thinking that I’m surviving my disability, and that instead I’m adapting to it. By changing my thinking I find my happiness, my peace. It’s not perfect. I still get depressed, frustrated, angry. In a way, that’s kind of the point. We don’t have to be the strongest to survive life, we just have to be able to adapt in order to start enjoying it.

Apologies to you all for not getting my article out a fortnight ago, I think you understand why. This flare-up has been hard; it’s taken a lot out of me. Thankfully, I’m on the road to recovery, for the time being. Signing off: 4am, pain level 5 (insomnia has its uses).

Featured image credit: Col André Kritzinger

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