Why Wellness Isn’t The Answer To Everything

Link Copied


Why Wellness Isn’t The Answer To Everything

Words by Mr Dan Davies

7 March 2020

“If my bad back had been a manifestation of stress, what was my seriously distressed kidney now trying to tell me?”

I once even spent a week on a residential life change course in Thailand, which entailed sharing my darkest fears with a caring and very sympathetic life coach, having massages and producing a Change Plan, which seemed to work – until I got home and let life take over again.

Of all the things I have tried, nothing compares with playing five-a-side football. Being able to forget everything for an hour each week and then retire to the pub with a group of men to laugh and talk candidly about what’s going in our lives is the perfect combination of physical exercise and therapy. I have yet to find an app or an exercise bike that can fire my imagination, sustain me for a week or offer camaraderie, consolation and good-natured ridicule in equal measure.

But how effective is wellness, in whatever form you seek it, when your health, both physical and mental, falls off a cliff? I found out last year. The football season was about to resume after the summer break when I picked up our 18-month-old son and felt a familiar, sickening spasm of pain in my lower back. Within hours I was struggling to stand up straight, which meant the walking, the yoga and my weekly football all went out the window. It felt like an injustice, given all the hard work I had put in, and my mood slumped. The meditation tailed off while monitoring the quality of my sleep seemed less important now that getting in and out of bed had become a physical hardship.

I finally got an appointment to see my osteopath and, after listening to my exasperated rant, he asked me a series of questions about my emotional state. He then went on to explain how our mental health is frequently reflected in our physical symptoms and cited stress as the likely root cause of the recurring problems with my back. We talked solidly for an hour and it was a relief to leave in less pain and with fresh insights.

Unfortunately, the only way was down. Just as I was starting to feel strong enough to play football again, I woke up in the early hours of the morning with severe pains down my right side and knew instinctively they were nothing to do with my back. Fearing I was having a heart attack, my wife called an Uber, which dropped me at the emergency drop-in centre at a local hospital. The nurses there suspected acute appendicitis and arranged for an ambulance to take me to another hospital where scans eventually revealed I had a large kidney stone lodged in my ureter, the tube that connects the kidney and bladder. Prescribed suppositories, I was discharged and told to wait for the stone to pass naturally, a process that has been described as the nearest thing a man will experience to childbirth.

If my bad back had been a manifestation of stress, what was my seriously distressed kidney now trying to tell me? I hadn’t seen my GP for three years, but the panic and loss of control I was experiencing due to my failing health persuaded me to seek help. The doctor who saw me was attentive and kind, and we agreed I would try antidepressants again. But after only two days of taking the pills I felt terrible – spaced out, nauseous and desperately anxious. After three days, I was back in hospital, this time bent double by the pulsing pain in my side. I was admitted and 36 hours later was seen by a consultant, who explained I needed to be operated on immediately.

“I came to with what looked like fishing tackle sprouting from the worst place imaginable”

The next three weeks were a blur. I was off work, advised to stop taking the pills, and was in and out of both hospital and the doctor’s surgery. I also experienced general anaesthetic for the first and second time in my life. After the first surgery to laser the kidney stone failed, I woke up with a catheter and a stent in my ureter. After the second, some two weeks later, I came to with what looked like fishing tackle sprouting from the worst place imaginable for a man.

The pain this caused, and the amount of tramadol I required before allowing a nurse to remove it, contributed to what can only be described as a manic episode. Rather than going home and resting, I became inexplicably fixated with the need to buy a new family car. So, less than 24 hours after lying unconscious in an operating theatre, I drove across London in the pouring rain for a drawn-out negotiation with the sales staff of a Ford dealership, before signing an agreement to buy a vehicle we couldn’t afford and didn’t need. It was only on the way home, when I caught sight of my wild-eyed reflection in the rear-view mirror, that I finally came to my senses. I pulled over, phoned my wife and then burst into tears. Luckily, we were able to cancel the contract.

One kidney stone, two operations and five weeks of sick leave later, I finally made it back into work. Within three days, I had a streaming cold and by the weekend, I looked like I had gone 10 rounds with Mr Tyson Fury. My eyes were bright red and my nose, cheeks and eyelids were grotesquely swollen. I went back to the doctor, who told me my immune system was shot and sent me to yet another hospital where I was diagnosed with viral conjunctivitis and signed off for another week.

After boasting about never getting ill and rarely, if ever, having to take a day off work, my defences had disintegrated. And just weeks after telling everyone how great I felt and how apps were fashioning a better, fitter, happier me, life had been reduced to a desperate lurch from one disaster to the next.

Five months on, I’m feeling much better, but still trying to make sense of what happened. What I am now convinced of is the need for balance, both in the strategies deployed to survive life’s slings and arrows and in my expectations of what they can achieve. I placed too much faith in the idea of wellness and felt let down when hit with the rank bad luck of consecutive health issues. How much those problems were linked to my deteriorating state of mind remains a bigger question. It’s one I’m trying to avoid having to answer again through my own kind of combination therapy: drinking less and sleeping more, swimming and running each week, watching what I eat and listening more attentively to how I’m feeling from day to day.

I’m still playing football and enjoying it more as a result of feeling fitter, thanks to the other forms of physical exercise I’m doing. There’s also a fresh set of apps on my phone, including one, Asana Rebel, that has me attempting one-handed planks in the kitchen once the kids are in bed. The difference is I am not relying on any one of them to change me, only to help me from time to time.

Illustration by Mr Iker Ayestaran

Fits and starts