I have a chronic illness that flares up from time to time. If you’re a personal friend*, you probably know what it is; if you aren’t, you don’t need to. It’s not life-threatening, or even painful, but it’s capable of knocking me down to about 30% of operating capacity for days at a time. There’s medicine that helps — sometimes — and things I can do to minimize the chances of a flareup — sometimes. The body is a complex system affected in many ways by many things, and there’s no easy if-X-then-Y with this one.
(The main reason I’m not saying what it is isn’t because I’m terribly private, or that it’s terribly disgusting, but because people feel compelled, when hearing of another’s illness, to either share their own stories of much worse suffering or else suggest this new medicine or diet or asana that worked wonders for their sister-in-law who had the exact same thing, really! Neither of these are lines of discourse that most sick people are at home to. Although it does motivate us to get our strength back, so we can pop you one.)
Part of my New Year’s resolutions last week was to get better. To heal myself. Not physically, because I can’t do that, but to reconcile my body and my mind and my responsibilities and my relationships so that I don’t make things any worse than they have to be. I recently finished Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography, Still Woman Enough, and one line jumped out for its pure simplicity and sense: “I do not believe in pain if there is any way around it.” A woman who has had as much pain in her life as Loretta Lynn damn well knows what she’s talking about, and damn well knows that pain does not ennoble. We’ll be talking about Ms. Lynn — and about Tina Turner, too — a bit later.
I wasn’t intending to spend my New Year’s energy on that project, but guess what, the Days of Awe this year turned into the Days of Aw Crap, It’s Back Again. If the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like a dangerous ocean voyage, the good Lord decreed that I was going to spend most of my time in sickbay. So I figured, okay, that’s my challenge for this year. It wasn’t what I’d planned to focus on, but you can’t order up life lessons like they’re adult-ed seminars. God don’t run no JuCo.
Anyway, here are my resolutions:
1. Don’t use my illness as an excuse to get out of doing things that I really can do, and that would be good for me, but that I just don’t want to do. Sometimes I will bail out on things when I’m sick because I’m embarrassed to compromise. I don’t want to call a friend and say, “I can’t make our dinner date tonight because I don’t feel well, but I’d love to see you–could you come over for a quick after-work cup of tea instead?” It’s easier to pretend that “something came up” and I need to reschedule entirely. I feel weird going to the gym and only working out for 15 minutes. It’s easier not to go at all. But hey, my friends love and accept me, and I’m sure everyone at the gym is paying attention to their own workouts and not timing mine.
… but …
2. Don’t be all macho or martyrish and force myself to do things that I really can’t. I’m not doing anyone any favors by promising things I can’t deliver. Nor am I doing myself any favors by pushing my limits, either because I don’t want to believe that I have them, or because I want to punish myself for being so weak and stupid as to get sick in the first place.
3. Do what I can to keep it under control. Oh, all right — it’s a stomach thing, okay? And I will pop you one if you give me unsolicited advice. Anyway, the point is, there’s certain things I can eat or avoid eating that put me at lesser risk for having a flareup. Small, frequent, high-fiber/high-fat meals are good; coffee and raw vegetables and too much rich food are bad. Sometimes. Mostly. Like I said, it’s a complex system.
… but …
4. Don’t blame myself when I do get sick, even if I got sick during a time when I wasn’t eating “right.” I’m not ignoring the reality of the connection — although as mentioned it’s by no means a hard-and-fast causality — between my habits and my health, but I truly don’t have to paint it in moral terms. Getting sick doesn’t mean God is punishing me for having a latte. It means I took a small gamble and lost. And we take a gamble every day just by getting out of bed, let alone leaving the house.
… and finally …
5. When I’m sick, to realize that the inevitable feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness are part of the symptoms. I don’t have to fight the feelings, but I don’t have to believe in them, either. That’s a tricky line to walk, but I think I can do it. I did pretty well with that last week, and I’m proud of myself for it.
I’m posting this because maybe you haz a sick, too. A lot of people do. And a lot of us are ashamed of it. We are a problem-solving, can-do, bootstrapping nation with a medical tradition that doesn’t handle chronic and complicated illnesses terribly well. (I’m about the furthest thing from a New Ager when it comes to medicine — don’t give me a smudge stick and healing dances if I need penicillin, already. But that doesn’t mean I think Western medicine has it all figured out right now. If it did, we wouldn’t continue to do research.) And 21st-century American culture has raised body-shaming to something akin to a religious tradition.
So maybe if you haz a sick, you could stop beating yourself up over it. Do the right thing by yourself, as much as you can, and when you can’t, well, that’s life. You can’t always be perfect, and even if suffering is the price you pay for a fall, that doesn’t mean it’s the price you deserve to pay.
Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Heal yourself.
Comments open, and please don’t take my “Don’t give me advice!” screeches to mean that I don’t want to hear what’s worked for you in dealing with your own chronic or recurrent illnesses. I very much do. I mean, please don’t tell me what to eat, that’s all.
*I’ve always thought the term “personal friend” was redundant and stupid, and in most cases, it is. But sometimes it is the right phrase. I do feel I have a relationship with my regular readers and commenters, but you aren’t people I know in everyday life. Friends, but not “personal friends.”