I’m told that in the first year of my life, I slept – and slept. My mother used to lean over my cradle and watch and listen, checking that I was still breathing. Still unsure, she would ask my grandfather to check again. Maybe I was born tired! In my mid-twenties, I knew I was tired. I now know that the tiredness was due to two things: boredom and a malingering discontent.
By the late 1980s, health issues had taken me through a plethora of medical procedures. Then, I stumbled upon the connection between challenging life events and physical illness – through a young doctor, acting as a locum for my regular physician. “This is a stress-related condition, which is compromising your immune system,” he said. So what? I wondered. Everyone has stress in their life. I was too embarrassed to ask what an ‘immune system’ was. But his remark – and my chronic condition – was enough to set me thinking. Over the next seven years, I returned to the books and qualified in Psychotherapy, Stress Management, Anatomy and Physiology and Massage Therapy, discovering along the way that, although I had coped, I was not adept at recognising, nor managing the demands of stress on my physical health.
But there was a more ominous underlying malaise: I had worked most of my adult life but I had never found an occupation that satisfied an unidentifiable yearning that often turned to gloom. With the exception of five years working with two educational organisations and two years working in a clinic, my most enduring income came from contract work with a bank, data collection for the health care system, a variety of temporary administrative roles and sporadic, part-time work behind the scenes in the film industry.
I filled personal journals with questions and although I had written a slew of articles and stories for newsletters and a local historical publication and enjoyed the writing process, I lacked the confidence to make writing a career. As a confidence-booster, I took a course in creative writing, which led to ghosting a memoir, published in 2008, and contributing to some other books and manuscripts, most of which went to publication. But something else was missing.
Following a series of challenges that included bereavement, a broken leg and several house-moves, I began attending a weekly meditation and relaxation session. Assuming that it would be the impetus to put my knowledge into practice and that I had nothing to lose, I began attending the group regularly. During the final session, before the summer recess, I had a revelation: to return to something I hadn’t done since my teen years – painting.
Within a year, the room where I painted began to fill up with pictures. Friends’ compliments gave me the confidence approach a gallery from where one of my exhibits sold. I continued painting. Tiredness slowly lifted. A combination of stress management and art had given me a new perspective; a new life. I left my blasé attitude towards stress behind, knowing, from personal experience and from others that, over time, it can be a killer. There are of course variables; what is stressful for one person might not take a feather out of someone else.
In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 adult medical patients to determine whether stressful events might cause illnesses. Patients were then asked to tally a list of 43 life events based on a relative score. A positive correlation of 0.118 was found between their life events and their illnesses.
The results were published as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS] known more commonly as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Subsequent validation has supported the links between stress and illness.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale calculates the ‘units’ of stress that apply to events in the past year of an individual’s life. The final score provides a rough estimate of how stress affects health.
Life event and Life change in units – Holmes and Rahe – Wikipedia.
Death of a spouse 100
Marital separation 65
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Change in health of family member 44
Sexual difficulties 39
Gaining a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Beginning or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Major Holiday 12
Minor violation of the law 11
Score of 300+: At risk of illness.
Score of 150-299: Risk of illness is moderate.
Score of 150: Only a slight risk of illness.
I may be someone who learns through hard knocks. No amount of cosmetic restructuring would hide the physical battle scars that are testament to the number of ‘Life Change Units’ clocked up over decades, but the pervading ‘condition’ is now one of contentment and even joy. Looks like I’m awake and still breathing.