In Sickness and in Health

Apparently, I’ve been sick for the last four months. As it stands, I’m writing from the local library, rather than the comfort of my own home office, because the plaster we’ve been using to renovate our bathroom and my respiratory system do not make great bedfellows. In fact, I’ve been breathing in dangerous plaster particles for months now, using my contact lenses, toothbrush and makeup, all coated with a chemical I am, apparently, very allergic to.

books-2596809_960_720Why am I telling you this? Well, apart from the obvious relief I feel at knowing it is a specific allergy and not something more sinister, after x-rays, blood tests, and environmental allergy exams, I also feel bad. I have been feeling bad, worse than I realized, for months, and in that time I have not been very kind to myself.

Back in October, I wrote about the process of trying to write, to be a self-starter while experiencing loss. I spoke of how the escapism of reading and telling my own stories got me through the first weeks of a very challenging time. Now, I have to turn my attention inward and say, how do you write when it literally hurts?

Part of the problem is that I couldn’t pinpoint why I was feeling ill. My symptoms were difficult to identify and kept evolving, a cough, difficulty breathing, back pain and chest pain. Initially, I thought they were complications left over from the flu, and then I didn’t know what they were, but I always assumed the worst, creative, epic illnesses that meant I could kick it at any moment. I did the right things, got all the tests, went back to the doctor and back again and still, I woke up groggy, got headaches and had to manage my ever increasing anxiety.

And that was the hardest part. My anxiety is almost always related to my physical feelings. It is often a harbinger symptom, a sense of itchiness and discomfort in my own skin, a lack of interest in my future or the world around me, an inescapable fatigue. I have been fighting these symptoms for months, and they can be very persuasive.

So what do you do when you just don’t want to work? When the stories are sitting on the back burner because hey, you can’t be bothered, when your eyes droop closed and your heart’s not in it?

You have to be nice to yourself.

I’m not always good at being nice to myself. When I experience anxiety, when I experience the fatigue and challenging symptoms of this allergic reaction, I have the tendency to take the tough love approach. Fight through it. Just deal with it. You’re not even that sick. You’ll feel better when you finish a project.

park-3353659_960_720The problem is, none of this is true. And when I’m already going through something frightening, frustrating and lingering, the last thing I need to do is be meaner to myself.

The plaster is still in my bathroom. I spent several hours scrubbing the daylights out of the construction zone last week, but the particles have been floating around for months and no doubt they are on my hairbrush, in the tile grout and under the lip of my conditioner bottle. Short of moving out of the house, I will simply have to find a way to manage this situation. For now.

So when these things happen, when we get the flu or food poisoning or a scary allergy or deep anxiety, we forge a new normal for ourselves. We spend the day at the library, instead of at home. We work outside when the weather gets warm. We reevaluate our expectations and try to be more realistic about what we can accomplish, instead of punishing ourselves for not reaching impossible goals. It is times like these when I have to remember that writing is a marathon, not a sprint and that burning out now will only ensure I never make it to the finish line.

I hope you never have to experience something like this allergy. It is frightening and frustrating, and the treatments are simply a way to keep the symptoms mitigated, but they won’t go away for good for a long while. At the moment, struggling to take a deep breath is my reality.

But that doesn’t have to stop me. For now, I’ll change my expectations, adjust the bar of what I can achieve and accept that moving forward at a slower pace is still moving forward. After all, eventually this will just be one more story for the books. ♦

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