I’ve been walking through treacle recently.
Not literally, of course; that would be insane. But metaphorically speaking, it’s felt much the same; like walking, moving, thinking, through treacle.
It’s one of the joys of chronic illness – and the impact it can have on my emotional and mental well-being.
Amongst my friends, I’m generously lauded for my resilience. Last month marked the 14th anniversary of my collapse with ME/CFS, a condition which affects multiple systems, has no definitive cause or treatment, and which I manage physically unsupported.
I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it’s tough. There can be a LOT of treacle to wade through and, despite my years of practise, I’m only little (with short legs).
I’m one of the lucky ones, though. With enough planning and pacing of my energies and activities, I’m able to remain self-sufficient and to appear to “do” a lot of stuff. It’s easy to forget that I even have a chronic illness (especially if you don’t see me in person, so you don’t have my walking stick as a reminder); my personality is often so enthusiastic and energetic!
But The Universe likes to remind me in small ways that are unseen and unwitnessed by others. And sometimes it likes to bring in a relapse, a prolonged deterioration in my baseline levels, just for good measure.
And last month was such a month.
. . .
I find it hard to write about relapses when I’m in the very midst of them. Morning pages go unwritten, messages go unanswered, email inboxes go unopened. The fine art of adulting boils itself down to the basics of survival; can I make myself something nourishing to eat? Can I stay warm? Can I return to my bed yet again without guilt or self-recrimination, regardless of the hour?
Duties which connect to the outside world, at times like these, remain just that – in the outside world.
Cancelling plans and disappointing people, as the descent steepens.
Just focus right here, right now, keep one foot in front of the other emotionally, mentally – physically.
Hoping not to slip.
Hoping not to slip deeper.
And yet, I also understood why it was happening. The inherent kindness in this period of pain, exhaustion, crushing isolation and waves of despair as the darkness of the world crashed over my tiny wooden boat of a life, soaking me through till my bones chilled with its sadness.
When I was first diagnosed I used to joke that losing the functioning of my legs and, particularly, my arms, was God’s way of saying “For heaven’s sake woman, JUST STOP!” And I still rather think there’s some truth to that.
I’m reminded of Michael Neill’s description of a hotel hairdryer in his video course about depression. He felt pretty annoyed at what he believed was a design flaw (and major inconvenience) when it kept cutting out on him. That is, until he realised that the hairdryer was switching itself off to prevent itself from burning out completely.
He saw it as a metaphor for the way his depression was the “cut off” switch when he became “over-heated” by anxious thinking. And I see my relapses as the way my innate health “switches me off” after a period of sustained activity, so I can prioritise rest and recovery before I break myself completely.
There is an inherent kindness to the design.
Of course, it doesn’t always feel as simple as that. So reminding myself that, while my experience may feel pervasive, permanent and personal, it actually isn’t, does help. There’s self-compassion in recognising that everyone goes through the same thing in their own way, that this is suffering, and to be even more gentle with myself.
Reminding myself that underneath it all, I’m essentially okay, helps, too. There is a core here, which you could call the soul or true self, which remains untouched by the things that occur (and the thinking that occurs) to “me”. A self which is a source of warmth, of love, of light – no matter how much of those qualities feel utterly extinguished at the time.
As Albert Camus so evocatively put it,
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
Spring is on its way. New growth is waiting, waiting, to burst through. The energy of life itself, despite the fears that flood our media.
It can be tough to rest, even for someone like me who has a condition that loudly demands it. I’m not out of my relapse yet, either; this is very much a missive while I’m on the path.
I’m also as guilty as the next person for confusing my productivity with my self-worth, and for pushing myself beyond my more meagre limits. And yet, without fallow periods, without the space to rest and nourish myself, I’m drawing on a well that’s run dry.
And if I won’t take those breaks voluntarily .. well.
Who knew that kindness could take such an unsuspected form?