WHO ARE YOU?
I'm Josie Bowerman, 25, from England. I'm a professional word-lover: linguistics student, EFL teacher, writer and reader. That's pretty much my life-- words!
WHAT DOES UNRAVELLING MEAN TO YOU?
I went back to the dictionary to see how 'unravelling' is objectively defined: variously, as separating or disentangling threads, as freeing from complication or difficulty, and as taking apart/undoing/destroying. Of those three 'official' ideas, the one that resonates most with me is the first one-- going from a tangled whole to something separated and no longer knotted-- because all the other ways of understanding unravelling seem to follow from that: the disentanglement has to happen, not necessarily intentionally, for example with the aim of destroying; and once it happens, then we might see that we've been set free, or that something has been undone, etc. I think that captures the way unravelling can be completely unplanned, outside of our control, and can have all sorts of unforseen consequences, both positive and negative.
COULD YOU SHARE A STORY WHERE YOU HAVE UNRAVELLED?
In 2013, I was diagnosed with the chronic illness lupus. Whilst in hospital, the thread of my life very nearly unravelled altogether, but luckily my wonderful doctor was able to reel me back in. However, I was left completely tangled. Before getting sick, I'd been gearing up for my final year at Cambridge University. My life had been a life of the mind, full of ideas, huge thoughts, questions to answer. Now I had to wait to see if there'd been brain damage, had to listen to the doctor tell me that I might never go back to university. I felt worse than tangled, I felt shredded and destroyed. Yet, I surprised everyone at my hospital by recovering from the lupus flare in just two months. I'd been told to expect at least a year out of action (and had had to defer my studies until autumn 2014), and suddenly, the unexpected gift of health and time had been thrust into my hands. So I found a way to fill it. I extricated myself from all the cliches about people with lupus that had been wrapped round me-- 'you can't do anything stressful', 'you can't be active', 'you can't have expectations because a flare WILL crush those dreams'-- and trained as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher: a stressful, demanding, non-stop, and hugely fulfilling job.
Once I'd qualified, I was offered a post as a lead teacher at a summer school for Japanese university students. Because I was of an age with my pupils, I was able to form some really strong and rewarding friendships with my class-- I've always been fascinated by Japanese culture and had dreamed of going to Japan, and my new friends opened up my heart and mind to their country. After the course finished, one of my friendships developed in a way I didn't expect-- I developed a special bond with Ryosuke, one of my former students, and eventually we both came to the realisation that our bond was a bond of love. But we were thousands of miles apart, me at university in Cambridge (I was well enough to go back to complete my degree), and him at university in Tokyo.
While his family were supportive of our relationship, and thrilled that we seemed so happy together, my family were furious, reacting with disgust that I'd fallen for someone from another country. I spent a month in Japan as a post-graduation treat, but when I came back, I was expected to knuckle down to a Master's degree and put 'all that ridiculousness' behind me. When I went to London for my post-grad course, I had to keep quiet about the lupus and do my best to act 'normal'.
This last year has been a struggle-- to understand and love my family even in the face of their prejudice and harshness, to study to the best of my ability without damaging my body, to maintain my wonderful, precious relationship despite us still being so far apart, and to try to work out a future for myself that will see me happy and healthy.
WHAT LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNT THROUGH YOUR UNRAVELLING PROCESS?
My unravelling process taught me that there's so much more hope and wonder in the world than we realise-- because I had to start noticing and focussing on the good, in myself, in others and in the world, otherwise I would have fallen into a very dark place: when I was at my most ill or when I had to adjust to going back to university, or when I was confronted by my family's reaction to my relationship. I learnt to be more compassionate and forgiving-- to try to either understand the reasons why (like remembering that my mother had negative experiences with international relationships which probably were colouring her reaction to my situation, and to try to practise tact and patience when interacting with her), or to accept the randomness of things. For example, there's no real 'cause' for my condition, lupus, so I had to just come to terms with that, and most importantly, stop blaming myself. There was nothing I could have done differently in my life to ward it off, and to be angry with myself was unfair and cruel. Life doesn't always work out how we want it to, but it's nothing personal-- the universe isn't out to get us, we're not being punished, and there's still so much to live for. Above all, unravelling taught me to go with things-- embrace change, don't try to grab for the end of the thread and gather yourself back in. Everything I've experienced has taught me something new, brought new people into my life who have had a life-changing impact on me, and has made me who I am. I think that to wish away any of your life is to wish away part of your soul. Every moment makes us, we're like beads on a string, or bricks being built up into a huge, misshapen, marvellous structure! Take away just one brick, and the whole thing collapses....
HOW DID YOU SUPPORT YOURSELF DURING THIS TIME?
To support myself, I had to put my health first-- simple things like always taking my meds, even when I felt frustrated and the side effects were grinding me down, and never missing a hospital appointment. I also researched how I could adjust my diet to give myself an extra boost and support my medication, so I started eating lots of anti-inflamatory foods, like pineapple and spinach, which made a huge difference. I took exercise more seriously, and realised that it gave me a brain-break as well as helping my physical fitness-- running takes me out of my mind and into my body, which is great for me as a student because sometimes I end up forgetting that I have a body, when I'm so lost in my thoughts. Emotionally, I opened up a lot more to my family and closest friends, and simply stopped worrying about everyone else. If my condition meant that I risked having limited energy, then I didn't want to waste it on people who brought me low, or used me. I always tried to use visualisation, or 'mind over matter', too. I'd picture myself walking, running, going back to university, talking in Japanese to my boyfriend's parents, and really concentrate on every detail of what I was doing and feeling, like a rehearsal for the real thing. So, by the time I came to try the thing in question, I'd anticipated any problems, I'd 'practised', and I knew what a good feeling I had to look forward to, so I could go for it in the moment! Before, I would have dismissed anything like that, but I completely changed my opinion. I started meditating as well, and that's now my secret weapon before exams, after essay hand-ins, before tricky family events, etc.
WHAT BIG DREAMS DO YOU HAVE RIGHT NOW?
My big, big dream is.... JAPAN. I'd love to teach English there, but also tap into the inspiration that the country gives me and do more writing, working on my essays and poetry, and hopefully starting a blog with my partner where I can share my words and he can share his pictures (he's a photographer in his spare time), and we can make something really special together. There's also the option of further study... I'm anxious about my Master's results, as I've literally just completed the course, so I'm on tenterhooks at the moment. But I know that I have my EFL qualification, and that it will take me anywhere in the world...
As I write this, I'm coming to the end of my Master's course, and have big decisions to make.... I could truly have a great unravelling, and unspool my life in England, to remake something new, and hopefully beautiful, in Japan.
I need to have courage, I need to be wise, but I also need to listen to my body and my heart.
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A little note from me
One more thing, when Josie wrote to me she also asked for me to share any wisdom or advice. This is how I replied....
I just wanted to start by saying, that I admire the way you have navigated your unravelling. I could relate to many aspects of your story, especially the challenge of having a chronic health condition. In regards to this, I think you are doing so so well. Looking after your body and listening to your body is key to being able to function optimally. You are the expert when it comes to your own physical health. I know that sometimes having to always stay on top of something can be exhausting, but overall you are probably living a much healthier existence as a result. Before I became unwell , I had no idea what an anti-inflammatory food was, but through my own illness I learnt so much about how to nurture myself - sure it's not easy, but it feels good living in this intuitive way and I am sure our bodies are grateful.
Thank you for sharing so openly about the struggles you are having with your families acceptance of your relationship. Although it might not seem like it, your family are probably coming from a place of love and protection. They want what's best for you - and to them this might not look like the path you have chosen.
In my experience sometimes this can just takes time. I spent three years working with a counselling phone service for the Gay and Lesbian community . Although it isn't the same situation, I came across many people who had family members that didn't support their relationships. Over time, for some people, this changed. Eventually those around them saw the positive impact of that relationship and were able to put their initial thoughts aside.
In the meantime go gently, create some boundaries and try to surround yourself with friends that support you.
Only you know what feel's right for you - trust in that. Look after yourself and seek some additional support if things become more challenging.
Thank you for sharing your story, I know that your words will provide comfort to others who are walking the unravelling path.