When your holiday is not heaven

IMG_3774Whenever people asked me about my holiday in Greece this year, I would say, “it was wonderful, beautiful.” The Facebook photos show it, and it is true. But it is not the whole truth. My holiday was wonderful, beautiful – and really hard.

At this point I want to tell you quickly that it doesn’t mean that I’m not absurdly grateful for being given the chance to relax in a place of great beauty. It is a massive blessing to be able to holiday abroad, and one I don’t take for granted. But joy and pain run like parallel train tracks in our lives, and I want to be honest about both.

***

For the first four days, my heart reacted badly to the heat and went berserk. I felt overwhelmingly, blurringly ill. I needed to take more pain killers in two weeks than I had done in four months previously. I needed to rest, alone, for the majority of the day.

But it was the emotional punch that surprised me. Grief has its own timetable, and it can strike at the most inappropriate and inconvenient times, even in the middle of a holiday you’ve been looking forward to for ages.

Ten years ago, Jon and I had visited that same Greek island. In 2005, I was in my twenties, and it was the last summer that my mobility was unaffected by M.E. Ten years ago, we had climbed up a mountain on the island and walked for miles. We had gone on boat trips and seen dolphins. That twenty-somethinged girl had been utterly ignorant of what would happen to her body over the next ten years.

It took me a while to work out why I felt so sad: I was grieving myself. In 2015, every time I looked at a map, or Jon mentioned a familiar place that he and the boy would be visiting, I remembered that first holiday, and how I had been able to swim in the pool and explore the churches. The ghost of my younger self kept distracting me from enjoying the present.

***

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I needed to talk it through, but there was no space to talk. I had purposely taken myself off social media so I could spend more time with Jon and the boy, but in the evenings I was unable to concentrate for longer than an hour, and needed to go to bed early. I am an extrovert: I do not do well with no people. I am a parasite who needs others to help me to process my thoughts – but I had only the echo chamber of my own thoughts.

I couldn’t escape my grief, so I sat with it.

In the hours after my husband and son had waved goodbye to me for the day, I imagined I was with them. I pictured myself climbing the church tower together with them, sweating and complaining that Jon had not brought enough water. (I needed to make the portrait realistic, after all).

I imagined I was there with Jon, watching my son jumping off rocks into the sea. (I would probably have tried to persuade Jon not to let my son jump off rocks into the sea, come to think of it.)

I imagined walking in rock pools with the boy and telling him stories about starfish. I imagined persuading Jon that although we were going out for dinner in the evening, we really did need to buy a gyros kebab for lunch as well.

I tried to be happy where I was – the hot sun, the beautiful view – but I kept being pulled to the past me and the potential me. In the end, I just let myself be sad.

But there was joy mingled with the grief. The heat embraced me as I lay on the sunbed, and when the Greek sun hits the white walls of the houses, all you can see is light, everywhere. I listened to music and sang loudly, with no one to hear me. When my brain came back after a few days, I got lost in some novels.

On the days I was well enough to leave the cottage with my family, I drank it all in – the bright pink flowers, dark olive trees, blue roofs and white walls, the taste of succulent fresh fish eaten by the sea. On one glorious day, I was able to go the beach with my boy, and for half an hour we sat by the water’s edge, choosing the best stones (naming one stone a ‘margarine stone’ for reasons that now escape me), laughing wildly every time a wave rushed over us. In those moments, I was utterly and completely filled with joy.

We were on holiday, away from our day-to-day routine, our usual vista, but I could not take a holiday from my illness.

***

This is the truth of holidays, whether you have chronic illness or not: they offer us a break from the norm, but not a break from us. Sometimes they feel like a beautiful, too-good-to-be-true gift and your soul is filled to the brim with joy – for a fortnight. Sometimes they can also be a tantalising teaser of how good life could be, and how plain your normal life is. Other times they can also be a cruel reminder that you and the world are broken, and life is not perfect.

I’ve been reading Wild in the Hollow by Amber Haines, a beautiful memoir about brokenness and searching for home. She keeps saying how so many things in life are a metaphor that point to the greater spiritual reality.

When the grief of chronic illness strikes, I am Adam and Eve, homesick for Eden, looking at the angel barring the way back. My sickness is part of the metaphor that reminds me of the brokenness of the world. When I am paddling in the clear Mediterranean, I am John in Patmos, with a glimpse of heaven and the riches of eternal life with the Creator.

***

We want holidays to be heaven, but that is still to come. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that we are homesick for paradise, and that heaven is not to be found by jumping on a plane.

In the meantime, grief and joy will always intermingle, whispering to us the truths of this world, fall and resurrection, if only we have the time and ears to stop and listen.

(With thanks to Amber Haines and my friend Katherine Carlisle for the inspiration)

Over to you:

  • How was your holiday, if you were able to have one?
  • What are the metaphors about greater spiritual reality that are speaking to you at the moment?
  • Are you more ‘Adam and Eve’ or ‘John on Patmos’?

The link to Amber’s excellent book is an Amazon affiliate link – £5.22 on Kindle, £10.77 hardback. If you haven’t yet bought it, you should! 

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33 Responses to When your holiday is not heaven

  1. Elaine 1st September, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    Thanks for your holiday blog. Explained things so well.

  2. Jo Inglis 1st September, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

    I so wish you and others in the same situation could check out of your chronic limitations at times like this, it feels so very unfair. But I am glad too that you were able to appreciate the goodness of your holiday surroundings at the same time.

    I think this is an example of ‘holiday’ sharing which is an outright gift, because it benefits you and the reader with its warts and all honesty.

    So much holiday sharing on social media seems pretty selfish (“look at these pretty pictures of where I am & you are not”, “I’ll just inflict 179 unedited photos on you, enjoy” “I’ll flood your timeline for a few hours posting beautiful things one by one”)

    Yes I am snarky because my church fellowship has quite a number of people for whom more than one foreign holiday/overseas breaks per year is ‘normal’. We’ve never had the resources for this and I struggle with people ‘celebrating’ each other’s holidays on FB.

    Oops sorry it all came out – but that said I really appreciate what you have written here xx

    • Tanya 6th September, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      “So much holiday sharing on social media seems pretty selfish (“look at these pretty pictures of where I am & you are not”, “I’ll just inflict 179 unedited photos on you, enjoy” “I’ll flood your timeline for a few hours posting beautiful things one by one”)” – ha! This made me laugh! I’ve also thought that! Whenever I can’t go on holiday or do things I like because of my physical limitations, I often find solidarity in the fact that so many others are also limited, not by disability, but by money. This, in a way, makes me even more frustrated, because it’s not like nothing can be done about this. We can’t fix disabilities, but we could share resources. It would be amazing if there were some kind of charity that could allow people who couldn’t usually afford it to go on a holiday to a nice place. I’d definitely donate to that!

  3. Rebecka 1st September, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    Yes! Oh, how I wish it was possible to take a holiday from illnesses!

    This summer I’ve been worse than I was last summer. The symptoms weren’t horribly awful, but I definitely had less energy and more vertigo and weren’t able to go on holiday. When I compare how I’m feeling now to how it was last year when I managed to visit my uncle for a few days and go on a blueberry picking trip, take short walks and read lots of books I absolutely feel like more like Adam and Eve. But when I remind myself of the summer before that, when I couldn’t read at all without getting dizzy and barely sit up for 10 minutes I’m very grateful I’m now able to not only sit up but also read Dickens for crying out loud! 🙂

    (Can’t wait to get to heaven though so I can climb mountains, jump and dance. Dance with me?)

    • Tanya 6th September, 2015 at 11:59 am #

      ARGH! SO sucky to be worse than you were last summer! That’s really discouraging. (I think that’s partly why summer and Christmases are hard – because they act as anniversaries).
      (Also – very cool that you’re reading Dickens. Which one? I have a love-hate relationship with him. Which is to say – love Tale of Two Cities, hate Bleak House. Everything else is in-between).

      LET’S DANCE IN HEAVEN! 90s cheesy music will be my soundtrack of choice (Jump around; Alanis Morrisette, Fatboy Slim…) 🙂 What’s yours?

      • Rebecka 7th September, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

        I’m reading Great Expectations at the moment. I like Dickens, but not so much for the stories as for the way he phrases things. I find myself giggling a lot while reading. 🙂

        I’ll dance to anything with a good beat. Cheesy 90s music definitely works!

        • Tanya 17th September, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

          He does have a good turn of phrase! I remember Great Expectations as feeling creepy, I think, but good. And also preposterous. (Like most Dickens stuff). The BBC did a really good adaptation recently.

  4. Mavis Poole 1st September, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    Excellent article, highlights the many challenges of limited ability ,
    beautifully written ,tender.poignant,inspirational,engaging so many emotions, #memorable.
    much love,many thanks.

    • Tanya 6th September, 2015 at 11:56 am #

      Thanks so much for your encouraging comments, Mavis!

  5. Cathy 1st September, 2015 at 2:26 am #

    Tanya–
    Beautifully written, as always. Long time, no comment, but I am still trying to read your blog when you post. Work has been incredibly busy lately. Am also having some health issues of my own that I hope I can keep from mushrooming into something worse.

    Very timely about grief. I have been going through something similar in a completely different area of my life (about which I feel shy discussing in public). I cannot believe how deep and how painful the grief is, as well as how it seems to ripple through other, related areas/issues. All ultimately good, I realize. Especially when I actually feel “lighter” (physically and/or emotionally) the next day and beyond. But during the acute sense of grief, the pain is intense. I feel as though I have been preparing spiritually for the ability to grieve these things, as though I couldn’t have done it sooner.

    Also, that God was aware that I would need certain supports in my life before I could go there. Not that I am sharing the pain with others all that much; it’s too personal. But aware that having my (new) church family and my cozy house really help. I was so isolated for so long (and I am an introvert–though I think we introverts desperately need intimate friends, perhaps even more than extroverts); I ache with your “echo chamber”…

    Hugs,
    Cathy

    • Tanya 6th September, 2015 at 11:56 am #

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I’ve said a prayer right now that those health issues will not mushroom into something worse. Praying for wholeness for you.

      ” I feel as though I have been preparing spiritually for the ability to grieve these things, as though I couldn’t have done it sooner.” – I find this so fascinating – that grief hits at the time when our body and soul is prepared for it. I totally get this. And though I don’t know which area of life it is, I also understand that grief can occur in the most strange ways, not just in classic bereavement, and it can be harder to process when we don’t name it as such. So I’m really glad you’re able to name it.

      I’m praying that you have a few diamond friends with whom you can share this grief and help to process it through – it sounds like it is a heavy thing to carry alone. With much love. x

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