Detaching from the identity of chronic illness

Sometimes, when times are really bad, it is hard to know where the illness stops and where you begin.

I attended a yoga workshop today, where the underlying theme was opening the heart and letting go of that which no longer serves you. It ticked all the right boxes of where I am in my life at the moment, and I left feeling lighter, calmer and at peace with the world. In case you didn’t know: I love yoga.

As I was lying there in meditation, we were invited to let go of the things in our life that we no longer need to hold on to, and I realised that for me, that thing is illness. For those of you reading this post who also experience chronic illness, I suspect this will make a lot of sense, but for those of you who are generally fit and healthy, it may sound pretty bizarre. But chronic illness is so much more than just being chronically ill.  When you experience the same pattern of symptoms repeatedly over many months, years, or even decades, those symptoms become the very essence of your existence. Long-term illness creeps its way into every single aspect of your life: work, home, relationships, hobbies, diet, bedtime routine, the list goes on and on. Every decision you make, and I mean every decision, has chronic illness behind it. It’s like a constant parrot on your shoulder that you can never get rid of. Chronic illness becomes a part of your identity. Sometimes, when times are really bad, it is hard to know where the illness stops and where you begin. And not only that, but all of the thoughts, beliefs and emotions that come along with those symptoms, become part of your identity too.

Up until very recently, these were some of the thoughts I experienced on an almost daily basis:

  • Oh no, these symptoms again, I can’t cope with this
  • How much longer is this going to go on for?
  • Will I ever get better?
  • I’m going to have to cancel my plans again, what if “insert friend’s name here” gets pissed off?
  • YAY, I feel good today. Oh wait, how long is it going to last?
  • Maybe if I just meditated more/took this supplement/lived off of ice cubes, I might get better

Etc, etc, etc.

In addition to my US treatment for Lyme disease, I recently added a “brain retraining” programme for CFS/ME into my recovery. Sounds a bit nuts, and I don’t want to go into details of this just yet, as it’s early days and I’m still working out what I think about it all. But without question, it is helping. The focus of this programme is to calm the nervous system, in two main ways: 1) directly through meditation, deep breathing and stress management, and 2) by reducing attention (read: obsession) on symptoms, illness, and all the kinds of thoughts listed above. Amongst other things, it involves redirecting focus away from negative thoughts, beliefs and images, to more positive, empowering ones.

For the first couple of weeks, it was hard-going. The negative thoughts were pretty much constant. Any time I stood up, sat down, got in the car, noticed a symptom, noticed a lack of symptom…basically any time I so much as took a breath, a thought or image related to chronic illness would crop up. It was really quite eye-opening to start paying attention to these thoughts, not running from them or trying to push them away, but just noticing they were there, accepting their presence, and then calmly redirecting my attention. It made me realise just how much illness has become ingrained in my entire existence; my self-identity. And the trouble with this, is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle. How can you get better when you are constantly telling yourself, without even realising, that you and this illness are one?

But after those difficult first couple of weeks, changes started to happen. The thoughts were cropping up a little less, and my brain was automatically picking the positive images over the negative ones. Don’t get me wrong, the thoughts are still there. They’ve been there for about ten years so I guess they’re not going to go away overnight. But when I wake up in the morning, my first thought is no longer “am I feeling sick today?”. When I make plans for next week, I’m no longer assuming that there’s a good chance I won’t be well enough. Of course, I know that realistically, there is still a good chance I won’t be well enough, but I am no longer stressing, obsessing and expecting the worst. I imagine health. I picture energy. I believe, deep down in my soul, that I am on the road to recovery. And that may happen next month, it may happen in a year – it doesn’t really matter. I am no longer attached to a timeline, a “deadline” of how much longer I can cope with this for.

For the first time in my entire life I have stopped the frantic search for an answer from the outside world, and instead, I am looking within. And slowly, but surely, I am detaching from my identity as a sick person.

The balancing act of good days & bad days

The last few months have been a strange time for me. After a relatively good January, February-March was one of the longest bad spells I have had for a while. The bad days far outnumbered the ‘good’ days. My health always goes in waves; bad patch, good patch, bad patch, good patch. But the length and severity of the bad patches, and the length and ‘goodness’ of the good patches, varies massively. I guess this means I have good and bad patches of good and bad patches?! That’s a head-scratcher.

A longer-term good patch might be 2-3 fairly bad days, followed by 4-5 pretty good days, then back to a few bad days, etc etc. February/March was a longer-term bad patch. This means several weeks at a time of bad days, followed by perhaps 1 or 2 days of feeling a little better, of hoping that the bad patch was over and I was on my way to a better place, only to be met by another few weeks of bad days. It is at these times that my mental health suffers most and I find it hard to cope. Having several weeks of bad days with only the odd good day or two in between, makes it feel very relentless. Somehow, having at least a few good days in a row makes me feel like I’ve had a bit of a break from it all. I get to do some nice things, meet some friends, hopefully do some yoga and tidy up the house a bit; before it all comes crashing down again. But the trouble with the longer-term bad patches, is that the good days are so massively outweighed by the bad days, that there is nowhere near enough time to fit in all the things that I want or need to do; the chores, the responsibilities, the workload, the relationships, and, most importantly, the fun.

And the strange thing is that those one or two slightly better days in between, can actually be worse than no good days. When it’s bad day after bad day, I somehow come to accept that I feel shit, and that there’s not much I can do about it. I know that nothing much is going to get done and instead, each day just becomes a quest for survival; the aim is simply to make it to the end of the day, no greater expectations. But when I have a glimpse of a better day, it gives me hope. Maybe a better time is up ahead. Maybe this is IT; maybe I am actually recovering and from now on it will just get better and better and I will never be as sick again as I was yesterday. Maybe tomorrow I will be able to clean the house. Maybe tomorrow I will be able to go to yoga class. Maybe this weekend I will be able to catch up with some friends.

I have written before about how important hope is in chronic illness. How, when all hope for a better future is lost, chronic illness becomes unmanageable. And in the bigger picture, I still think this is true. But day-to-day, hope can also be crushing. Because when I wake up tomorrow and it is, in fact, not a better day, there is a sense of loss. Grief, even, for the good day I thought was mine for the taking. Disappointment that I won’t be able to fulfil my hopes of getting the housework done or having a productive day at work. Guilt that I will have to let my friends down, for the millionth time, because those plans I had scheduled on a good day, are no longer manageable when today is a bad day.

On the good days, my awareness is suddenly brought back to all the things I want and need to be doing. I feel like I have been left behind from my own life. Like I have to catch up on all the things I missed out on on the bad days. And I have to suddenly catch up on it all right this second, before the opportunity is taken away again.

Chronic illness is the most enormous juggling act. I have the to-do list of a healthy person, with only a fraction of the days in which to complete it. The first good day after a bad spell brings so much pressure. What do I prioritise today? My instinct is to prioritise work. My PhD is important to me; it matters. And after several days or even weeks of feeling like I have only been touching the surface of what I want to be achieving, the sense of suddenly being able to work at full-pelt feels liberating. But then….what about the housework that needs doing? Those jobs that I simply have not been well enough to worry about, like scrubbing the shower or changing the bedsheets or emptying the bins. Wouldn’t it be great to get those jobs done so I don’t have to worry about them if tomorrow is another bad day? But then, what about yoga? Oh how nice it would be to roll out my mat and stretch my body and feel my breath and focus on how good I feel after being curled up on the sofa for so long. Or better yet, I could go to a yoga class and combine the joys of yoga with a change of scenery and some social contact. But, what about those friends I’ve been cancelling on recently? Wouldn’t it be great to give someone a call and catch up over a cup of tea? To be able to talk to someone about what a tough time it’s been recently and how grateful I am that today is a brighter day. To ask how they are and what has been happening for them. To chat, to laugh, to moan. To be a friend. And what about my relationship? Wouldn’t it be amazing to head out for dinner or go to the theatre or out for an evening walk? Wouldn’t it make me feel so happy, so alive, to be able to be a girlfriend and focus on his needs, on our needs?

How on earth does anyone make such choices? We all lead busy, stressful lives, and we all have to decide what we want to prioritise. But when the number of days available to you are cut so significantly, and when you have absolutely no idea when the next available day will be, how do you decide? And then there is the risk of trying to squeeze in too much; of tiring myself out and bringing myself crashing back down into another bad patch. Every tiny decision of how to spend my time feels like life or death because the consequences are enormous. There is a constant pressure to make the right choices. To not fuck it up, for myself or anyone else.

And yet, having to make these choices forces you to think about what is really important in life. I don’t want to live in a pigsty, but does housework really matter? When I’m on my deathbed will I look back and say “I wish I had changed the bedsheets more often”? My PhD is important to me and I want to do well, but as PhD students we are always taught to let go of perfection; to learn how to just be ‘good enough’. Perhaps I am lucky that chronic illness doesn’t even give me the option of perfection, that I have already had to learn how to be ok with being ‘just good enough’. So what really matters to me? Relationships. Nature. Yoga. Being present in the here and now. Making the most of all the things I am fortunate enough to have in my life because, as chronic illness has taught me, there is no guarantee that those things will still be here tomorrow.

Published on The Mighty

The power of the human body

Time and time again I tell myself “I don’t think I can do that”, and my body proves me wrong.

Those who know me know that yoga is a huge part of my life. It is more than just a hobby, it is a way of life. I highly recommend yoga for anyone with (or without!) chronic illness, because yoga really is accessible to everyone. I will admit that my absolute favourite parts of yoga are the headstands, the handstands and all other things that really challenge me physically. But here’s the thing: yoga isn’t really about the headstands, handstands or any other fancy poses. Yoga means ‘to yoke’; to unite; to join; to connect. It is a process of becoming more aware of who we really are. The poses we typically associate with ‘yoga’ in the West are one way of working towards this, but anything that helps us connect with ourselves is yoga. Therefore, anyone can practice yoga. It doesn’t require physical fitness, it assumes no religious underpinning, and it doesn’t mean you have to pay £8 to attend a class. Sit for 5 minutes focusing on the sensations in your body – yoga. Use techniques to regulate your breath when you feel stressed – yoga. Practice self-compassion, being honest with yourself about what is right for you – yoga. In fact, everything we do could be yoga if we practiced it with full awareness.

For the last couple of years I have dabbled in acroyoga, which combines yoga with acrobatics, working with and supporting other people in pairs or groups. There are a million reasons why I love acroyoga: it appeals to my love of a physical challenge, it pushes me outside my comfort zone, it builds trust and communication, and above all, it is seriously good fun! Around 6 months ago I had a bad patch health-wise, my mental health and motivation suffered, and I stopped practicing acroyoga. Before I knew it, I was out of practice and convinced I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore, and acroyoga was no longer a part of my life.

Just before Christmas, I was having a good week and I bit the bullet and went to my local acroyoga class. I was nervous about going. I really didn’t know what I would be able to manage physically, I had been out of action for so long and I was convinced that I would no longer be able to do the things I used to be able to do, that everyone else would be better than me and that I would have a miserable time (self-pity anyone?!).

Well, how wrong I was! I managed all the poses I could do before, including the one in the picture, which I had actually really struggled to get the hang of when I was practicing regularly, and which I’d only ever successfully done twice before (thanks to my fellow acroyogi for letting me use this picture!). But more than that, I had fun. I instantly reconnected with the wonderful community of acroyogis and I forgot about all my problems. It was the happiest I had felt for a long time.

I honestly cannot believe what my body allowed me to achieve that night, but when I think about it, I really don’t need to be upside down hanging off someone’s legs to realise how powerful my body is. I have been chronically sick for years and yet every day my heart continues to beat, my lungs continue to breath, and my body allows me to live a relatively normal life. Day after day I feel my body struggling just to make it to the end of the day, and yet, after 6 months of inactivity I was still able to do challenging poses and even learn some new poses. I have absolutely no idea how my body does it, but it does. Time and time again I tell myself “I don’t think I can do that”, and my body proves me wrong.

I know that I am fortunate. I know that for many with chronic illness, a good day means making it to the shower. I am lucky that my body allows me to achieve things that for many would feel impossible. But the message is still the same. Chronic illness can feel like a daily battle: me vs body. It can feel like my body is punishing me, fighting me, willing me to give in and just be sick. And then I have moments like that evening at acroyoga, and I am reminded that my body is not fighting me at all. My body is willing me to be well, not sick. Even in my sickest times, my body continues to chug along in the background, waiting patiently for me to be well again. My body is not my enemy, it is my friend.