Updated: Mar 14, 2022
The forest around the 3E center made me realize how much my life in Birmingham differed from the surroundings I had grown up in. I was born in East Germany, near the border between East and West. My dad was a hunter, and we spend many hours together in the woods and forests surrounding our village. When I am walking amongst trees, I have a deep sense of being home, of being where I belong. My dad and I have always shared a deep love of nature. I always saw myself and all humans as part of an intricate web of nature.
My dad and I would spend hours with identification books of plants or insects, looking at tiny details and photographs to find out what this particular plant or beetle or spider was called, how it lived, what it ate, how and when it mated. In autumn we would take a long ladder and clean out all the bird boxes that my dad had put up, so they’d be ready for nesting the next spring. It almost felt like sacred work. We would go collecting acorns and chestnuts and store them in our yard. In winter, when the snow lay on the ground and everything was covered in silence, we would take our skis or sledges and hike with backpacks full of acorns and chestnuts into the forest, feeding the deer and wild boar. They knew the spots to come to. When I was a child, winters in Germany were long and January, February would normally be cold and full of snow. We would silently make our way into the trees, making tracks in what looked like billions of stars twinkling on the ground.
I loved going hunting with my dad. Going hunting was never about shooting the animals. My dad saw himself as doing the job of the wolves that no longer existed in Germany at that time. We would mainly hunt animals that were ill, or that were old. If there was an overpopulation, the numbers needed to be reduced to not cause harm to the farmers by ruining their fields and decimating crops, which often happened when wild boars appeared in large numbers in late summer. The majority of time, we didn't shoot anything, we just observed. I loved the excitement. My dad woke me up at 3.30 in the morning, the rest of the house silent and asleep, like the rest of the world it seemed. We would get dressed quietly to not wake my brother or my mum and drive out into the forest.
Our car would be left near the road, while we silently walked along the field track into the forest. I loved it. Slowly putting one foot down onto the ground, carefully so my weight wouldn't rustle the leaves underneath my feet, gently transferring the weight onto the other foot before taking the next step. How silent could I walk? How good was I at merging with the forest? After each step, we would pause and listen. Listen for sounds of other animals, listen for the sound of birds rustling through the bushes. It felt like the forest was one moving organism which we had become part of by entering.
Slowly, silently, only making hand signs or gestures to each other, my dad and I would walk, followed by our little dachshund until we reached a hunting stand. Here we would carefully climb up the ladder often high into the branches of a tree, and sit. I loved the peace. There is something magical about dawn, the sun slowly creeping up on the horizon, bathing the whole world in the most gloriously warm shades of pink, orange and yellow. The joy in my chest felt almost unbearable. It felt like my heart was bursting from the sheer beauty of a morning on earth.
On some mornings, my dad's elbow would slowly nudge my side, his head gently pointing in the direction of some deer just coming out of the forest to feed on the fresh grass covered in early morning dew. Or there might be a rabbit family coming out to greet the day, a raccoon, some wild boar, a fox, all coming out of the thicket onto the open fields to greet the morning with us. Most days we would just watch and feel blessed to be part of this beautiful world. My dad instilled a deep love of nature in me, and taught me what a paradise we live in. He taught me respect for all other living things, he taught me not to kill any creature unless I needed it for my own survival, he taught me that every spider, every beetle, every insect, was part of an intricate chain, necessary for other species to survive.
When we did shoot something, there was a whole ritual attached to releasing the spirit into the everlasting hunting grounds. It made the killing almost sacred. Not a thoughtless act, but an act filled with gratitude for the animal's sacrifice. It had given its life, so we could eat and live our life. We would find a little branch of either a fir tree or some oak leaves which my dad would place into the mouth of the dead animal, another branch would be attached to his hunter’s hat. Then, my dad would get out his hunting horn and play a special tune, releasing the spirit into the spirit world. My heart would be filled with sorrow for the animal, excitement for having made the kill, pride at being dad's lucky hunting girl, and a deep respect for the circle of life and death.
All these childhood memories were flooding into me as I was watching the forest outside my window. I had only just arrived, but already I could feel an overwhelming sense of peace in my heart. The peace I had felt as a child in the forest. Tears were slowly rising, restricting my throat. I had not been aware how much I had missed the forest. Although we lived on the outskirts of a big city and I made sure I spend a lot of time in nature, the area I was now living in in England had no forests. A few miles away there were small woods, but looking out onto the trees now made me realise how much I had missed the vast expanses of forests that I was used to from Germany.
I knew before I came here, that I was a long way away from who I truly was. That I hadn’t just left my country, but a part of myself behind when I left Germany to move to the UK. The feeling I now had in my chest, the sadness, the grief, the tears for the country life I'd abandoned made me realise the enormity of the task ahead of me. Here, I had just seen a glimpse of the girl I once was, a reminder of a happiness long gone. Where was that carefree girl that was in tune with nature at all times? How was I ever going to find my way back to her? And how was I going to find my way back without hurting the people around me, the people I loved most in the world? Could I go back to my true self and still be my son's devoted mother, my husband's loving wife, my mum and dad's caring daughter, the loving friend I was to so many, my brother's big sister? I was scared.
Would finding myself mean losing some of those relationships I cherished so much? So much of my time was spent being there for others, would being there for myself mean not loving others as much? I decided that whatever fears I had, the next month was just for me. I had invested ten thousand Euros into this, so I was going to make the most of every day I had at this place. This was “me time” – everything else would fall into place afterwards. However much I missed my son and my husband, I owed it to myself to give this my best shot. It was too much money to not give it everything I had. If I didn't show up 100% every day, I would have wasted the investment I had decided to make in myself.
At 6 pm we were welcomed by the centre director and all the staff. Everyone here was just lovely. The team were used to working with people who had nothing to lose. Most people who came here had been given up by school medicine. They were the ones who had been told by their doctor that there was nothing else he would be able to do for them. “You have three months to live. You have six months to live. You have 12 months to live.”
Compassion, love and respect, as well as a sense of defiance and a deep will to live filled the rooms and corridors of the 3E centre. There was joy, there was hope, there was honesty. “Here are people who have not given up on you yet” seemed to ooze out of every picture, every staff member, and every word that was uttered in these walls.
One of the most surprising things that was asked of us on that first night was that we not speak about what was wrong with us, unless we spoke to our therapists. We had all become defined by our illnesses, many of us had suffered for years and didn't even remember anymore who we were without it. The director explained, that if we were to heal, we would have to think again like a healthy person. To become healthy, we needed to change who we currently were, we needed to stop feeling like a victim, stop seeing ourselves as a patient.
I was relieved. I had been a little worried, that I would feel left out as “the only one without cancer”. How ironic! Here I was, debilitated by endometriosis, but with a fear of not belonging, a sense of not being ill enough, not suffering as much as the others. As if suffering was a competition you could win or lose.