Six months into my journey with chronic invisible illness, I started referring to my body as a “she.”
“She’s especially bossy today.”
“She won’t cooperate.”
“She’s got a mind of her own.”
The body that carried me through 10 years of competitive running and three graduate programs developed a mind of her own, making it difficult to shower, wash dishes, or even eat (because, it turns out, eating requires sitting up).
It did not take long before she started feeling like the enemy.
I did not mean to treat her badly, but my heart’s anger toward her seeped into my thoughts, and I often found myself pushing her to do more than she could and then berating her for her limitations.
I started treating her like the enemy.
When I first contracted the viral co-infection that triggered my chronic invisible illness, I held onto hope that I would heal. I was young and the first two doctors I saw assured me “it would pass.”
But as one year morphed into two, and then two into four, my hope of healing shriveled, like the forgotten geranium that sat on my college apartment balcony, brittle and brown, with drooping, spindly arms.
The challenges of chronic illness — the isolation, shriveled hope, relentless struggles, and loss of friendships, work, and adventure — plunge me into inky, cold darkness that settles, like lead, in every crevice of life.
Here is the thing about life in the dark – it is impossible to survive it without a friend.
I have had several friends sit with me in the darkness, their presence one of my greatest comforts; but my friends are warriors with their own battles to fight, and sometimes — lots of times — I found myself alone in the dark. Alone with my enemy and my body – my only earthly companion.
And I knew that somehow, I needed to change my belief that my body was the enemy. Somehow, I needed to make her my friend.
So I began to notice the ways she served me well.
I noticed how my taste buds uncorked the zip of fresh cherries and the woody warmth of apple cider.
I noticed how my olfactory glands opened me to the sensuous grace of spring — to jasmine, plumeria, and roses streaked with sunset hues.
I noticed how my brain generated imaginative thoughts that spilled into stories, and my deft fingers plucked fragrant summer basil from my garden.
I noticed how my vocal cords enabled the magic of conversation. My skin absorbed the glorious warmth of sunshine. My arms returned the embrace of a loved one. My ears opened me to the melodies of Mozart, Beyoncé, and the songbird outside my window.
For months I observed my body, gathering data like fireflies in a mason jar, and as the light intensified, I watched my affection for my body grow.
It grew and grew, until it seeped into my thoughts, and I began caring for her with tenderness and speaking to her kindly. When she was especially weary, I was more keen to accommodate her, with gratitude for all she had already done for me. And when, in the midst of activity, I was overcome by incapacitating symptoms, I found myself speaking words of encouragement aloud:
“I know, body, you have served me so well today and are tired. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
As I settled into the comfort of friendship with my body, I found my love for her didn’t swallow my grief over my physical limitations.
Grief ebbed and flowed like the tide, but my body and I began to grieve together. Tears, deep breathing, poetry-writing: these steps on the journey of grief were all made possible by my body.
Author Anne Lamott writes about the time her friend, Sue, told her she was dying of cancer and described the effects of the illness on her person.
“I have what everyone wants,” Sue said. “But no one would be willing to pay.”
“What do you have?”
“…I got forced into loving myself.”
Illness is unspeakably difficult, but it gives us an unexpected, breath-taking blessing.
It teaches us that the nightmare can become the gift. Our Limitations can be guides that grab us by the hand and usher us into the breath-taking joy of being human, bodies and all.
Getty Image by Merlas