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D is for (the far side of) Despair - An A-Z Guide to Resilience

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

As a burnout keynote speaker I'm not afraid to be real and vulnerable with my audience, sharing insights that emerge from my own day-to-day struggles. One of them being diagnosed with a debilitating life time chronic illness.

This week, I travelled north to a hospital outside Liverpool to get a possible diagnosis for my chronic pain condition. My doctor's best guess is that I have Fibromyalgia Syndrome. But that’s not a diagnosis, because no one knows what causes it.

The Pain Clinic at the University of Liverpool are doing a study on Small Fibre Neuropathy, which they think is the root cause. Their researchers spent the day shining lasers in in my eye and taking bits of skin from my leg to asses if nerve damage is the origin of my pain.

I have to do this because to get a similar diagnosis on the NHS will take over a year. I’ve spent my life savings trying to find an answer and can’t afford private health insurance. These studies are a way of avoiding that utterly frustrating wait.

When the day of tests ended, I asked the researcher to level with me. Do any treatments for Fibromyalgia work? She shook her head and said: "I’m sorry to say this, but not really. We just try and help people manage it". It echoed a letter I recently received from an NHS consultant: “Ronan will probably never be free of his symptoms, so we have to make his life tolerable". Reading this at the age of 34 feels like a life time prison sentence.

Despair comes when we’ve tried everything and nothing works. We have fallen into the underworld expecting a dark night of the soul, but the dawn never comes. We despair for our inability to find lasting love, our wayward children, our addicted relatives, and an economic system that is hurtling us toward a dangerous future. Even the most charmed life has an element of despair.

Despair makes permanent our enduring struggle, and draws the logical conclusion that it will haunt us forever. At this edge, where I’ve felt like ending it all, I’ve discovered there is far side.

When I submit to despair, and fully allow it, I return to this present moment. I go beyond my life story, full of expectations of how it's supposed to be. My frame shifts from "how could this happen to me?" to "wow…this is happening to me". I see myself from above: A poor human being caught in the inevitable suffering of life.

I come to more deeply understand that this moment is all there is, and who I consider myself to be is full of mysterious potential. I find ambiguous hope: maybe I'll miraculously heal, or at least significantly improve my base line. If not, this pain is a hand on my back, pushing me deeper. I share this potential for hope in the midst of despair with my audience as a burnout keynote speaker.

I am reminded of this quote from Ecles:

“Pain falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, we are given wisdom, from the awful grace of God”.

As a burnout keynote speaker I often say that despair is a fearful foreboding, that if honoured, can return us to our freedom. We are gifted the deeper truth that we simply do not know how the most enduring patterns will evolve.

The next morning comes, and things feels a little lighter.

We wonder whatever happened to that despair.

We keep going.

This is an A-Z guide to showcase some unfamiliar concepts in resilience, originally shared on my LinkedIn and inspired by day-to-day insights from my own experience with burnout and my work as a burnout keynote speaker.

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