Award-winning speaker Fiona O’Meara writes about how her recovery from being bed-ridden due to M.E. is helping her reach a new perspective on the meaning of “success”
I’d always been afraid of failure. Afraid of not being enough, of not getting it “right”. (“Right” for whom? I’m not sure.) Being the best I could mattered.
Last November, I came second in the Toastmaster Humorous Speech Contest Final at District Level, which includes all of Ireland and most of the UK. It was a thrill as it was my first time to enter and I had been in Toastmasters for only eighteen months. Some people saw coming second as failure, more saw it as success. I saw it as success. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment and did the best I could.
It was a particularly poignant success for me as I had spent a quarter of my life virtually bedbound.
At the age of twenty-two, in 1997, I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.). M.E. is a long term illness that affects different systems of the body. l was severely affected and soon I was in a wheelchair. Worse than being unable to walk, however, were the horrendous, endless feelings of extreme illness. I felt as if someone was running a knife up and down my spinal cord, and twirling razor blades inside my skull. Every moment was a torment to be alive, but I had to stay alive and live through those moments. I couldn’t follow television, read a short paragraph or have a conversation. I needed twenty-four hour care and for many years I was in hell.
On my better days, I wondered if I would ever achieve like I used to. I worried that I would never again feel equal to my peers unless I could.
I worked very hard to get better. That filled my then boyfriend with both “admiration and apprehension”. My sheer relentlessness and extreme focus unnerved him a little. He saw no kindness in its steeliness. There was no potion too vile, no regime too rigorous, no suffering that I wouldn’t endure for my long term goal. It took me years to see his point: brute force and will power alone would not work.
Yes, recovery required endless discipline (it took eighteen months to be able to walk from my bedroom to the sitting-room; I then hurt my back and had to start all over again), but also a kinder, gentler approach than I had been adopting. Gentle equalled slow in my mind, and I did not have the time for that. I wanted my life back.
Years later, when I was well enough to consider Toastmasters, I was open to its approach. Encouragement, kindness, and focussing on success rather than failure is a more effective means of achieving goals. I had often used self-criticism to succeed, and it is a harsh inner voice. I am a member of Vox Populi (a young, vibrant club which meets on Mount Street) and its ethos has helped me cultivate a different approach to success. Former and current Presidents Maria McMullan and Merrilyn Campbell are superb at focussing on strengths whilst aiming for something bigger.
Standing on stage is exhilarating. Particularly in a contest. People think it is the desire to win that motivates, but much more exciting is having it all to lose. All eyes are on you and there’s a crisp, still silence just before you begin in which you can hear your own breathing. The audience and you are together in a moment and it is up to you to make it a good one. When you do, it’s happiness.
Being severely ill meant years without happiness. But eventually things began to turn around. I am still unwell every day, but to a much lesser degree. I am very optimistic about leading a fulfilling life.
Gary Cohn, the current President of Goldman Sachs Group is dyslexic. He claims that his disability meant his “ ability to deal with failure was very highly developed” by his early twenties, which ironically helped him achieve success. He was used to having nothing to lose.
Living with ME, for a long time, felt like failure. Simple tasks like holding a toothbrush or turning in a bed by myself were impossible, so there was little room for dreams of high status success. However, it forced me to develop self-worth independent of “achievement”. Also, I became remarkably resilient, having lived through a nightmare with no-one to turn to other than my family. (The government and medical profession have been shamefully neglectful of M.E. patients.)
I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone and I wish it was completely over. However, there is a power in developing strength through adversity. On International Women’s Day it is, perhaps, worthwhile to pause and acknowledge different kinds of success. We cannot always realise our dreams in the way we would have liked, or that society values. But maybe it is time for some different definitions of success and value? Definitions that allow for humanity, loss, limitation and recognise courage, strength and resilience? Recognising my own value was a much more challenging job than I had realised but it is the most satisfying success I have ever known. And it is exhilarating to live like you have nothing to lose, rather than endlessly wanting to win.