Then you go home and you’re left with the wrong parts of yourself. You see deficits that start to gnaw at your confidence and make you think you’re not enough– “I’m weak. I’m fat. I’m selfish. I’m stupid.” We tell ourselves constantly we’re beneath our own standards. These character flaws are our downfalls. They cannot be tolerated. We have to beat them into submission, discipline ourselves to hide them.
The standards and the distractions change and fade. And eventually we’re left with all of these “inadequacies”– The parts of ourselves that don’t fit. The parts that are too lazy, needy, inadequate, untrained. We’re left with run-down, misshapen vehicles that doesn’t seem to drive well on the roads where we drove before. And we have to find ways to make the vehicles work, to fuel them, and use them for what they are.
This post is about to get sad, and serious, and honest. I’ve recently accepted new truths about myself, and I want to be open about them. I want to be brave. I am brave, and talking about problems out loud helps us fear them less and move past them further. Soon, I’m going to tell you I’m still sick. I’m sicker than I was before. I’m also going to tell you I have an eating disorder. You read that correctly. I also have a cat. Either of those things could mean everything and nothing about me, depending on how you want to judge me.
When I came into the trauma of chronic illness, my imperfection became me. It felt like I had lost everything I liked about myself. The real me had disappeared, and I was left with an unusable shell. I disappeared. I stopped writing. I had nothing of value to say. I had no right to speak to the world. I was a “sick girl,” debilitated, unimportant, expendable.
I couldn’t overwork myself anymore. I wasn’t going to school, or headed to a noble profession. Illness was taking a toll on my body, and I wasn’t attractive enough anymore. I was too weak to decide how productive to be, or maintain an energetic and spunky personality all the time. I couldn’t earn my place in the world anymore, and I didn’t fit in the pretty box I was supposed to fit in, so I was nothing.
I thought the way to overcome the illness was to hide the undesirable qualities until I had enough strength to be the right person again. I would train my sick body to be strong again. I would use self-control and knowledge to discipline my body into healing. I would eat the right things, use the right supplements, change my lifestyle, study the necessary information. Then, I would be better. I would beat the illness. I would tease and train the lazy, useless body into something acceptable. Anyone who’s been through abuse or other trauma knows this thinking well. We blame ourselves and think we can make the terrible things smaller by over-controlling unrelated aspects of our lives.
Stop. There is nothing to overcome. You are not your trauma, or your flaws. I was never my illness. I was Summer, with an illness on the side. I was always a whole person. Without school, without my activity level, without my after-school jobs and volunteer work. And the sick Summer was not deficient. She was not unable. She didn’t need training, or lack discipline or strength. But every time I came home and felt weak and tired, I told myself I had to do something to fix it. I was being the wrong kind of sick person. If I were doing enough therapy, living correctly, acting the way I was supposed to, I would be this sick. Even after I found out that I had very real immune and neurological problems causing the symptoms, I told myself it had to be partly my fault that I wasn’t better off– I wasn’t “recovering.”
What I needed was nourishment. What I needed was acceptance. I needed to make space for myself in a world that always tells us we’re “less than.” I needed to fight the situation, not myself. Denial is not determination. I wasn’t being “stronger” than the illness. I saw doctors and took the drugs they told me to. I exhausted myself doing medical test after medical test. I had twenty vials of blood drawn twice weekly. I obsessively read chronic illness blogs and books and took the supplements they advocated. I did yoga and other “restorative” exercise that was supposed to make me better. But I hated myself and my illness. I must have been doing it all wrong because I was still sick. I still hurt. My muscles still didn’t work the same. I still had dizziness and brain fog.
I am still learning how to love myself. How to accept my life with illness. How to nourish instead of deprive myself. How to say
“I deserve to be here. Screw you pain. Screw you eating disorder. Screw you, self-blame! I’m going to have a life anyway!”
I’m still learning that I have things to contribute, even when I can’t be the picture-perfect girl I wanted to be. And most of all, I’m learning that being less “perfect” than I wanted to be may be even more of a gift.
But I’m back. I’m making space for myself. Just as we all should. I’m done lying to myself. I’m done hiding. I’m done accepting anything less than a full life, with bumpy edges and rocky roads. I’m done coming home and crying every night because my body didn’t work the way I wanted it to that day. Instead, I’ll make it a goal to throw a well-deserved (but succinct) fit, do some yoga, pour a glass of wine, and move on. I’ll stop being scared of everything I put in my body, and I’ll enjoy my morning coffee. I’ll eat more cupcakes. Because all the kale in the Northern Hemisphere hasn’t healed me yet. I’ll go for a walk when I want to, instead of when I feel like I “should.” And if I don’t do my “therapy” everyday, I won’t beat myself up about it. I’ll spend more time with my family. I’ll be more honest with my friends. Because I’ve wasted too much time being the “right kind” of sick person. I’ve wasted too much time hating myself for being a strong, able fighter. I’m done spending every minute fighting things I can’t control, and missing the things I should be celebrating.