In September, my body begins to slow down. Autumn seasonal allergies keep me tossing and turning at night, turning my brain foggy with exhaustion and headaches, and irritating my skin, eyes, throat and nose. In October, viruses start to circulate through my friends and family, almost every single one making a home in my body for days or weeks on end, lingering longer than they do in other bodies and doubling or tripling my chronic pain. Cold weather starts trying to worm its way between the 85 degree days of late San Francisco summer and the dramatic swinging of temperatures and humidity levels makes my muscles sore and tired. I know November and December will bring more viruses, less sunlight, cooler weather, and for me, less energy. I will spend days at a time sick in bed, or just too fatigued to do much besides read and watch Netflix. The next time I go a full month without getting sick may not be until March or April. Until then, a large portion of my energy each day goes towards survival. Making sure I eat enough, preventing my muscles from atrophying, avoiding and treating viruses or infections, and doing my best to address my social isolation will be my primary tasks, and many days they will use up all of my energy.
I am not particularly wired for a mental focus on physical survival. It makes my soul restless, angry, and anxious. I am wired for meaning-making, social connection and consistent engagement with creativity. My mental health, creativity, and sense of self all suffer during the survival months. So, I am not going to pretend that I have this positive perspective about them that I can present to make others feel more comfortable with the pain I experience during this season. However, in coping with the survival months I have learned a couple of important lessons that I want to share.
Before becoming chronically ill, I wasn’t always very in tune with my body and physical needs. Chronic illness has forced be to become a better listener to my body, and I need that skill more than ever during the survival months. I can’t afford to ignore my hunger signals, or the beginnings of muscles aches, or signs of lowered immunity, or my physical comfort. Being so closely attuned to my body has changed my relationship with her from one where I expected her to work for me, to one where I see her as deserving of care and attention so that we can get through the day together. I’ve learned in very poignant ways that my body is not separate from my thoughts and emotions but has a dynamic relationship with them that can give me a lot of valuable information about myself and how I’m relating to the world around me. Paying close attention to and caring for my body, especially during the winter months has helped me develop more compassion for my mental and emotional self as well. When I believe that my body is worthy of care, rest, pleasure, sustenance, and comfort, it is easier to begin believing those things about the rest of myself as well.
Believing that I am worthy of care and comfort also means asking for support when I need it. During the survival months I can’t cook for myself as often, can’t clean my house as often, and can’t go out as often, so I am learning to ask for support with these things. I’ve struggled a lot with feeling like a burden for needing support, but as I embrace my worthiness and self-compassion it becomes easier to let others care for me in the ways I need– ultimately, allowing others to support me both physically and emotionally build connection and intimacy that is not only valuable to me, but to the people in my life as well. Additionally, I am learning that I am better at showing up for others in my relationships when I am supported and believe that I am worthy of that support. I used to think that if I didn’t hold myself to an impossibly high standard of right conduct and self denial I would default to selfishness and have a net negative impact on the people around me. In reality, practicing compassion towards myself, especially through asking for what I need and embracing a sense of my own worth, allows me to love with less anxiety and greater presence.
I haven’t fully internalized all of this valuable information yet. I still have days where I feel like a burden and don’t ask for the help I need to the detriment of my well-being. I still have days where I don’t listen to my body or don’t respect her needs. I still have days where I am angry and it’s hard to remember that my body and I are on the same team. But I am continuing to put in the work, and even learning to see the ways that mistakes give me more insight into how to care for myself better. Forgiving my own lapses in self compassion is it itself a way to practice self compassion. (That sentence alone would blow 20-year old Hailey’s mind, by the way.) And while being attuned and kind to myself doesn’t make the survival months easier, I’m learning not to make them any harder for myself by letting go of guilt, shame, and relentless self-criticism.
I do not deserve the pain and frustration I feel during the survival months. The suffering of illness, isolation, and pain I feel was not sent to teach me a lesson or make me a better person, it just is. But I am thankful for the opportunities I have had in these difficult, dark seasons to work towards a fuller, healthier relationship with my body and therefore myself. While these opportunities for me have been linked to chronic illness, I think that all of us encounter moments when our bodies are inviting us into caring, mindful relationship with them which can lead us to personal transformation, self compassion, and into deeper connection with others.