“Over our lifetimes, many of us have learnt to ignore and override the messages our bodies share with us. When our bodies have signalled and begged us to slow down and take it easy, we have brushed these messages aside and carried on regardless.”
I’ve spent the morning in bed and the afternoon on the sofa. I’m ill. My nose is running, my muscles ache and I feel exhausted. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have done nothing but rest. The only activity I mustered was finger-based, flicking the buttons on the TV controller. From the outside, it looks very much like I have been doing nothing. And yet inside my mind, ‘taking it easy’ has activated a flourish of activity.
“Get up, you’re being lazy. You can’t stay in bed all day. You need to get on with things.” my inner critic has incessantly pushed. The me, that is me, the quiet voice of knowing, has spent the day in constant conflict, pushing back against this inner drive for achievement and doing. “No, it’s ok to be ill. Everyone is allowed to be unwell. If this was someone else you’d be telling them to rest. The best thing you can do is listen to your body and take it easy.” I have insisted over and over again. Despite this inner turmoil, on this occasion, I have managed to look after myself and take time to recover.
In truth, I’m probably only allowing myself to sit under a blanket on the sofa, writing this while resting, because I’m not working at the moment. If I did have a clinic booked, no doubt, I would have given myself a good talking to, pulled myself together and got to work. Probably reframing it to tell myself that it’s actually better to be ill on a work day than an off day, worse to ‘waste’ a day off. And so it is that in 15 years off working as a doctor, I can count on one hand the number of days I’ve been sick. It’s not that I’ve been any less sick than the general population. It’s just I have not allowed myself to be ill and take time to care for myself. I have been a machine. Being ill is being weak. Being ill means letting people down. Being ill is a luxury, a self-indulgence. Stories long ingrained passed down which have stuck. I have been a harsh taskmaster. I have spent a career caring for others and systematically ignoring my own dis-ease.
And so today, I sit reassuring myself that taking time to be ill is not selfish. It is an act of self care, self love and self acknowledgement. A simple witnessing of my humanity. Hell, maybe this radical act will ultimately mean I feel better faster and if not I have shown myself compassion and care.
Over our lifetimes, many of us have learnt to ignore and override the messages our bodies share with us. When our bodies have signalled and begged us to slow down and take it easy, we have brushed these messages aside and carried on regardless. Instead we have internalised the societal pressure for productivity and ‘keeping on keeping on’ in the face of our own discomfort.
Menstruality is a wonderful example. For more than 20 years, I carefully, purposefully ignored the magical cycles which keep time in my body. So many of us were sold a lie in childhood, that periods are nothing more than an inconvenience in modern life. Cycle around in your white jeans and don’t make any fuss, keep up with the boys and we’ll get on just fine. Women of my generation have been taught that hormonal cycles should have no influence on our day-to-day lives. Bleeding was uninvited and unwanted; a barrier to us being our best selves.
It is only over the last few years that I have even entertained the idea that our cycles are powerful information sources. My mind was opened by a book gifted to me by my sister-in-law, ‘Wild Power’ written by the founders of the Red School, Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer. In the framework presented, the cycle is divided into inner seasons. The cycle starts with bleeding in winter, a time when you can expect to look inward and quietly nurture. As you emerge from your bleed, you step into spring expectant and curious, energy restored. Then turning the corner into summer and ovulation, you enter your power, creativity is king and you are in flow. And then as summer fades we fold into Autumn. As we slow down, we are less gregarious and emotions are heightened. Knowledge of the beauty of the cyclical nature of my life would undoubtedly have helped me to understand myself better and to have more self-compassion through challenging times. Rather than adopting the ‘carry on regardless’ mantra, perhaps I would have soothed myself by considering my need for quieter times in Autumn and Winter not as a failure, but a necessary comfort; the need for time and space ‘normal’.
I wish I had learnt to listen to my body earlier. I am, however, thankful to be starting to treat myself with more love and compassion now. I sit on the couch under this blanket, a recovering machine. I am learning to surrender to the wisdom of my body and quieten the chatter of my mind