If there is one thing illness is good at it is stripping away layers of your identity.  Many people identify with their job and, when you are too ill to engage in the workplace, this aspect of your life is something only to be thought of in the past.  Similarly, relationships form a large part of how we see our self,  and these too are often a casualty of becoming severely or chronically ill.  For a romantic partner, the transformation of their lover from confident, able, co-creator of a bright future to worn down patient can be hard to take.  Even close friends often find illness hard to deal with, especially if your common ground is found through shared activity or late night drinking sessions.

When I was 25, I knew who I was.  At least I thought I did.  After the typical academic path of A-levels, university degree and PhD, I found myself doing post-doctoral research at the University of Zürich.  I had a wonderful girlfriend and many good friends.  My colleagues respected me and my parents were proud that I had managed to make a success of a career in biological science.  Outside of work and relationships I enjoyed walking the hills of my new home and visiting art galleries.  Life was sweet. Continue Reading »


In healing work, it is often suggested that we work at visualising a healthy future for ourself.  This is something I confess to have consistently had difficulty with.  I can completely understand the rationale behind setting a blueprint for the body and mind to work towards but, somehow, that happy and healthy future has often seemed far away.  Further away, in fact, in the future than it has been in the past.

After watching some gardening programmes on the tv, I have realised how important it is for me to have a space to grow my own vegetables, to sit with aromatic herbs, and for my children to have a safe space in which to play.  Having the energy to enjoy these things is also a future I would very much like.  A cat, and a  certain someone to share my life with would be the icing on the cake (although I recognise that her dreams might well differ markedly from mine and require some flexibility on my part).  Not so long ago, I had all of these things – good health and the country cottage, marriage and children.  It rarely pays to look back rather than forward, though, and I have the optimistic notion that next time things will be even better. Continue Reading »

Starting the day well

I find that how I start the day is incredibly important.  Waking up, my body usually feels less than well, with a multitude of aches.  My mind is also often full of worries and anxiety.  If I start the day by engaging in distraction by turning on the tv or computer, this serves to relieve me from the pain and worry in the short-term but sets up a pattern for the day which only ends with exacerbating both symptoms and mental unease.

The alternative to this is to start the day doing something positive for both body and mind.  I am a creature of habit so begin this at 8am every day.  Setting a time makes it easier for me to work through the nefarious excuses my brain inevitably produces as to why I shouldn’t do my positive exercises today and just get on with it. Continue Reading »

Meeting Experience

The words which follow come straight from the newsletter of the Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod.  More of his wisdom can be found in the book ‘Wake Up To Your Life’ and on his website www.unfetteredmind.org.  I reproduce it here as an excellent teaching on how to practice mindfulness and avoid being overwhelmed by what is happening.


“I don’t know who I am any more. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know how to go on. What do I do?”

A couple of months ago, I was leading an informal question and answer session, and after the meditation period, a young woman posed this question. She was clearly in distress about something that had happened in her life, a loss, perhaps, a betrayal – she didn’t say. Because  it was a public forum I didn’t ask her for any details. Instead, I talked with her about how to meet experience. Continue Reading »

My Story (part three)

I can’t remember how quickly I went back to work, but it was probably as soon as I could.  Although most of my research was carried out in the field (an actual field in Lupsingen where the biodiversity plots were, and a grassy Jura hillside near Basel), I also had plants growing in several glasshouses which needed regular tending.  I wanted to check they were okay.

The institute in which I worked was home to several dozen scientists, mainly with a biological orientation, but also housed a couple of social scientists working on environmental issues.  It was busy and somewhat clinical in feel but also warm and welcoming, the latter mainly due to the people who worked there.  Our boss was clever and funny.  He had spent a couple of years working at the University of Bangor which had left him with an impeccable grasp of English and a good understanding of British humour.

I am also unsure of how many days I lasted at work.  It can’t have been many.  One afternoon, after a short bus ride to check on some plants in a glasshouse across the city, I (for want of better words) hit the wall while weighing some samples in the basement laboratory.  My arms felt heavy, my chest tight, and I struggled to breathe.  I slowly walked back upstairs to the main institute and went in to see our secretary.  Kornelia was only 21 but ran the administration side of the institute pretty much single-handedly.  She was pretty, kind and efficient.  She told me to go home.
Continue Reading »

My Story (part two)

The day before I woke in such pain I was already experiencing signs of a ‘flu’ like illness.  Being young, though (a mere quarter of a century old), I had refrained from resting in bed and gone into Sheffield to do some Christmas shopping.  I had hoped to walk down and then catch a tram back but, after waiting for some minutes, I began the long trek back up to Broomfield from the city centre on foot.  In retrospect, this was a mistake.  What was also probably a mistake was going out for a drink that night with some European research colleagues.

In my field of research there was a small community of those working on a similar topic from several different countries.  Most came from universities in Holland, Sweden and England.  A few were from Switzerland and the Czech Republic.  Two friends in particular from Utrecht I very much wanted to see, and they were there that night.  I felt very happy in the surroundings of a British pub with a cosmopolitan crowd of young botanists, many of whom I had encountered at several previous biological conferences.  I guess I was a successful scientist at the time, as were they, and hosting them in my own country was a good feeling.
Continue Reading »

My Story (part one)

It began with low back pain, seeming to radiate from around my kidneys.  Looking back I suspect it was more to do with muscular tension than anything renally related but, at the time, I didn’t know that.  I was just in a lot of pain.  And pain was something I was not used to.  I had drunk a few pints the night before, but not enough to cause anything more than a mild headache.

The day was 21 December 1995, just days before Christmas, and the shortest day of the year.  I had just woken up in the bed of my girlfriend, A, in Sheffield, and was supposed to be attending the winter meeting of the British Ecological Society.  We didn’t live together. Far from that, in fact.  She was studying Information Science at the University there, while I was doing postdoctoral research on ecological genetics and biodiversity in Switzerland.  Because of the distance between us, we didn’t get to see each other that often.  By good fortune, the annual BES winter meeting was being held where she lived, so we got to grab a few more days together before spending the festive days in Carlisle with her parents and grandfather.
Continue Reading »