For Liz Wilde, a shocking and violent accident was the first of a series of traumatic events. And just when she thought her only option was to crumble and give up on living, an unusual epiphany changed everything…
Although I have always been a naturally optimistic person, one evening two years ago I found myself saying to my partner in a calm, matter-of-fact voice: ‘If nothing has changed in six months I’m going to have to kill myself.’ I was referring to the tinnitus sound in my ears – an internal wind tunnel that constantly blew through my head. The ear, nose and throat consultant had blamed stress and said the noise would lessen if I stopped listening for it. Unfortunately, my brain had become so alert to even the most innocuous threat, I could have heard a pin drop in the next room.
Something fundamental had changed in my personality. I have worked as a life coach for almost 20 years, helping clients navigate through difficult times. My profession is to problem-solve. I had always prided myself on being able to rebound from life’s challenges, but the previous four months had drained my resources dry.
It all started when I was searching for a light switch at night in an unfamiliar rental house. I lost my bearings and tumbled down 18 steep stairs, shattering my left elbow on impact. While I was having elbow replacement surgery, my 87-year-old father also had a fall and was taken to hospital.
I was discharged a week later, only to discover the true extent of my injuries once my morphine bubble burst. Every muscle in my body ached, and I counted the hours before I could take my next assortment of painkillers. My father was still in hospital with complications. Three weeks later I received a phone call telling me to come immediately; they were turning off his life support machine. The last time I saw my father alive is lost to me in a blur of tramadol and tears.
A few days after his funeral, I discovered a lump in my left breast. I waited two weeks for a hospital appointment, then another week for an ultrasound, as I was unable to lift my arm high enough for the mammogram. There were more tears as they told me the lump was a swollen lymph node, caused by the hot water bottle I clutched to my side each night to ease my pain.
I fought to stay positive, but I was mentally and physically exhausted. In a final act of defiance, my body shed both my big toenails. It was around this time that I started to hear unusual sounds. The doctor diagnosed an ear infection and prescribed drops, but my internal hum only increased.
My partner booked a restorative two-week holiday in Spain and, determined to enjoy myself, I paid to see a private consultant who delivered the tinnitus blow. Walking out of my appointment, I opened an email informing me I was being made redundant from the weekly magazine column I had written for the past 22 years.
I had always believed my resilience came from an ability to conquer negative thoughts, but I was all out of smart-thinking strategies. My innate optimism had well and truly deserted me, so I made the decision to use my forced sabbatical to strengthen my reserves. Unfortunately my brain had other ideas.
For the next 18 months, I lived in a state of perpetual hyper-vigilance. I had lost my mobility, my father, my job and my ability to experience silence – all in less than four months. What was going to happen next? I saw potential danger everywhere.
Each time I left the house, I imagined coming home to find burglars had ransacked my belongings. My tinnitus became more obtrusive, affecting my sleep and concentration. I had cancelled all my coaching clients after my accident, and now I wondered if I would ever be able to work again. I could hardly hear myself think – who was I to help anyone else anyway?
In desperation I bought a book called The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer. He advises spending a day listening to your internal dialogue, to notice what ‘your inner roommate’ is saying in each situation. It only took me a few hours to realise that my ‘roommate’ was permanently frightened, and her incessant neurotic chatter had taken over my life.
I realised I was getting lost in fearful prophecies of the future. From the minor (my dripping bath tap magnified into a leak that would bring the ceiling down) to the major (if my partner was more than five minutes late I panicked, imagining that he had been involved in an accident).
Instead of fighting these thoughts, Singer told me to simply observe them instead. I imagined myself sitting on a sofa at the back of my mind, watching my thoughts pass by in front of me, without trying to change them. Sometimes this was deeply uncomfortable. My fearful thoughts felt like a rubber ball ricocheting around inside my head, but if I forced myself to stay relaxed, eventually the ball would lose its speed and come to a stop.
I was beginning to see that life was not as fragile as the voice in my head had led me to believe. I had been so busy defending myself from imaginary demons. I needed to stop letting my nervous ‘roommate’ run my life.
Then I read The Little Book of Clarity by Jamie Smart and had my lightbulb moment. Smart told me that 100 per cent of our experience of life is created by our thoughts. We may think we are experiencing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ circumstances, but actually it’s our thoughts about what is happening that create our reality.
This was the reason why one day I was able to dismiss my tinnitus as a mild annoyance, and another day feel all-consumed by it. The issue wasn’t that I sometimes heard noises in my head. The problem was that I told myself those noises meant there was something seriously wrong with me. I was experiencing my thoughts about my tinnitus, not the actual noise itself.
This was incredibly liberating and suddenly made sense of other challenges I was facing. For example, I had been told that my neighbour was planning an extension and, as a home worker, I immediately went into panic mode. How could I concentrate on writing against a background of building noise? It had felt like a personal attack (‘She knows that I work from home; how can she do this to me?’), but now I saw that my neighbour’s decision had absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with her wanting more living space.
If a problem seemed insurmountable one day, but a week later was barely a footnote, what did that say? That it wasn’t the problem causing me to feel that way, but my way of thinking about it. With this one insight, life immediately felt lighter. I saw that I could dislike a situation but know my wellbeing was not fundamentally at risk.
Ever since I’d been told in the hospital that I was lucky to be alive, every obstacle felt as though I was fighting for my life. Now I understood: I had been scaring myself rigid for two years by creating a terrifying version of reality that simply wasn’t real. It was just a projection of my anxious thoughts. I had been stuck in a habitual pattern of negative thinking: ‘I am damaged by what has happened to me’, ‘I can’t live with this internal noise’ – and fallen into the trap of believing it was true.
As I began to understand how my mind worked, these pessimistic thoughts dropped away. If I didn’t get caught up in the drama, my thoughts changed on their own, without me having to ‘fix’ them. I could still get upset or angry, but now I knew it was my choice to continue down that rabbit hole. And it made less and less sense to do so. With literally less on my mind, I felt calmer than I had done since my accident – and perhaps even before it.
I have now resumed coaching and love sharing everything I have learnt with my clients. I can go for days without hearing my tinnitus, and when it turns up a notch, I no longer feel a knot in my stomach. I know that an agitated feeling just means agitated thinking – nothing more. The very best thing I can do is gently remind myself that there is nothing wrong with me. I am as strong as I ever was. I am free.
For more on Liz, go to lizwilde.co.uk