As the title of this post (and our blog) indicates, Erica and I both live with chronic health issues. When we were brainstorming ideas for the relaunch one of the first we landed upon was exploring this process of moving through life with illness as a constant companion. This post is the first in a three-part series on Recovery. We hope you find a piece of your own journey in these words and know you don’t walk alone.
Writing these blog posts is strange, I think, because we are in process. Writing is frightening like that – admitting our thoughts on a page that becomes a recording of our verbalizations at that point in time. Writing something one day, I anticipate that I may think differently on another day.
Everything is in process.
Moving from self-conscious to conscious is how is how I’ll describe a recovery process.
Thinking of recovery as finding and getting back something that has been lost, the process of recovering is getting back your “self” by becoming more aware.
For example, I walked around in a self-conscious body for many years. I had trouble trusting my body. I felt clumsy often. I listened to negative comments about my body in agreement. I scrutinized myself in the mirror and liked what I saw 20% of the time, maybe less. I had a yen to rid myself of myself: my mind because it seemed so uncooperative and negative, my body because it was cumbersome, required too much maintenance, and, to me, felt and looked awful. I liked neither my mind nor my body.
Being in your body in a conscious way differs from a self-conscious way. We mistake the latter for the former when we associate hair and makeup and clean clothing and fit bodies with a demonstration of “having it all together”. But the self-conscious is defined by fears and externality. The conscious self is the one defined by you.
At some point, I realized something had been lost because I had little trust in myself, and in such situations, we often flail and grasp after the “self”, wondering where our identity has gone.
Today I look around my bedroom and see many examples of what makes me the self who wants to recover, a person who wants to survive and thrive in a changing body-mindscape that is in continual process. I see my piano, guitars, books, plants, pen and paper.
Chances are you already devote time to activities that make you smile and bring your self into view. Knowing the self is knowing and admitting to the idiosyncratic hurdles that each of us have, and then accepting the self who shows you what you need to maintain yourself.
May we be conscious to avoid hurting others in the processes of pursuing any activities. May we behave with positive awareness as our conscious “self” while simultaneously extending our consciousness into the social sphere where we interact with additional, distinct “selves”.
For me, I wonder sometimes why the things I enjoy seem to be so boring and nerdy! And then I turn off the self-conscious voice and turn up the volume on my conscious, individual self, and my conscious, social self, too.
I look outside and there are my friends, whom I see every week. Outside are the musicians in the band, whom I play with every week. Outside is my bicycle. Outside is a dirt bed of vegetables. Inside is my laptop and music, and YouTube yoga and YouTube DJ sets and one-person dance parties. Inside is a nice warm house and people I know.
When my conscious self requires this or that activity to keep going, to stay above the line, I know because we keep in touch.
I was tempted to begin my section of this entry with a dictionary definition: blame my New England heritage for making it difficult to write about my illness without resorting to sarcasm and self-deprecation. Or dictionaries. Can you write about recovery without writing about illness? Surely that’s putting the cart a bit before the horse. Perhaps it’s my tendency to set the horse free and drag the cart myself that has gotten me to a place where I need recovery. Perhaps it’s all the trauma. Likely it’s both. Either way, at this point in my life the word “recovery” has become synonymous with “survival.”
When I came up with the title of our blog, “Recovering” was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the process Erica and I were undergoing: two creatives who’d devoted much of their adult lives to academia and were seeking to integrate these two supposedly non-conflicting halves of ourselves after leaving higher education. Recovery could be defined as reintegration of the self.
At the time I was imprisoned by PTSD: I’d moved home from Wales in order to face my past and it snapped on my brain like a crocodile that’d been waiting fourteen years for this particular meal. It dragged me under, sat on top of me and refused to move for about five years. When you’re face down in the mud under a thousand pounds of prehistoric lizard it becomes difficult to complete tasks which would seem, to an outsider, like pretty standard life shit: go to work; see friends; get out of that chair; eat. Over time your skin begins to harden and crack into its own crocodile scales, until you and the beast on your back have merged, and the memory of who you once were fossilizes. Recovery can then be defined as a garden of Edenic qualities and proportions: one which you’re told existed, once upon a time, but which is definitely not in the cards until someone decides to get off their ass and unlock the gate. It requires belief as strong as the lungs of a tent revival preacher.
When I talked to Erica about re-launching the blog it was with the assumption that I’d shoved the crocodile off my back and was, if not on shore, at least swimming in that direction. Recovery appeared to be an accomplished task. Heal from a lifetime of trauma and its consequent impact on my mental health: Check. Not long after we posted our re-launch entry I was re-visited not by my crocodile, but by its progenitor. In a well-timed reminder that The Universe is Fucked Up and enjoys kicking you not only when you’re down but also when you’re on your way up, Old Man Crocodile decided to poke his head out of the water and wish me many happy returns. Too many weeks passed, during which I marinated in a stagnant pool of shock, anger, grief, more anger, what-the-fuck-just-happened and incandescent rage. In true New England fashion I kept as much of that hidden under a sardonic veneer as my German half would allow. Those pesky life-tasks became a bit more difficult to accomplish. And then Erica emailed me with a question every single person who has ever had a long-term illness has asked themselves:
How do you get shit done?
Translation: How do you recover enough to live your life?
I sat with this question for weeks. And the longer I sat with it, the softer my crocodile scales became, until they gradually began to flake off. Each patch of raw, red skin sent new signals to old parts of my brain – parts which had been inactive for years – until one day I lay on my back in the Vermont woods and remembered.
Recovery is a choice.
It’s choice to do whatever it takes to be as well as you can in this moment, for this life, with this illness.
It’s a choice you have to make over and over and over again.
It is not a past-tense verb. For those of us with chronic illness, Recovery isn’t a place at which you arrive before writing a memoir and giving a TED talk. Recovery is a continuous state of being; and like all continuous verbs, it is continuously present, continuously acting, continuously available.
Next Week! Erica will share her experiences of being far from home when a migraine strikes.