I’m sick right now, but my mind refuses to acknowledge this. I have a habit of pushing my body to do my bidding. I continue stacking my days full of appointments and play dates. Or generate “To Do” lists that go on for pages while I’m fighting a nasty chest cold, or fatigue, or PMS, or depression. Like I said, it’s a habit. I fall back on it when things aren’t going my way.
I’m not sure when I stopped listening to what my body has to say. I think it started in early adolescence, when my body started telling me some seriously scary and confusing shit. Remember being twelve years old? Gives me chills (and not the good kind) just thinking about it. Besides the conversations your 12 year old body is having with you (pretty much without your permission), your friends and parents and BOYS start talking too. About what you have. What you don’t have. How you’re using or not using it. Whether boys will like it or not like it. If it looks like your friends’. If it doesn’t.
At this age I also started to realize the power my mind had over my body. It’s crazy to think about now—as a 35 year old woman and mother of young children. When I was 12, I took a page from the toddler playbook. I controlled the only thing that an individual has complete control over—what went into my body.
Have you ever tried to get a toddler to eat something they don’t want to? To get them to drink something they don’t want to? To get them to pee or poop when or where they don’t want to? And have you noticed the look on their face when they refuse you? Better yet, have you noticed the look on their face when they not only refuse you, but actively choose to do the exact opposite thing that you requested?
That look is the look of power, my friends. It’s a heady power. Not just for toddlers, but for people of all ages.
It’s bittersweet for me to finally understand that not only did I thrive on that power in my teens, I called on it well into early adulthood. I believe it became, according to mental health professionals, a “coping mechanism.” I may have stopped starving myself, but I never really stopped believing that I could control the circumstances of my life if only I worked hard enough at it. If only I sacrificed more. If only I stuffed down inner desires and listened less to my body.
My body was weak when I needed strong.
Which brings me to today. I’d been sick for about a month when my husband finally coerced me into seeing the doctor.
“I’m worried about you. You need to get checked out. Please don’t wait,” he said.
I relented because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Besides, he was right. After she took my vitals, listened to my chest and asked her questions, my doctor gave me her diagnosis. She perched her frail, aging body on the doctor’s stool; her back was ramrod straight. She looked down her nose over the miniscule reading glasses. She talked slowly, pausing occasionally to make sure I understood.
“So, I’ll give you a prescription for antibiotics, in case it’s bacterial. But I really think you got another cold just as your body was recovering from the first virus.”
I nodded. Yes! Antibiotics! I felt oddly empowered knowing someone or something else was going to kick this.
“But, if you want to get better, if you want to give your body a chance to fight these enemies, you have to do these other things.”
Here came the standard speech: drink hot, hot, hot liquids; get more rest; reduce your workload; protect your borders.
“And this means going to bed 1-2 hours before your normal bed time. Every night. And not doing anything that you don’t absolutely have to do.”
I looked at her soft graying curls, perfectly pinned back against a small oval Asian face. That face was beatific. She always seemed connected to a strong, calm undercurrent running through her life. I daydreamed sometimes that she was my grandmother, brewing cups of strong hot green tea for me when my borders needed defending.
“That’s what I do whenever I’m fighting something and it seems to be winning.”
She gave a patient, weary smile. Like a mother smiling at her toddler who refuses to poop on the potty, preferring his pants right outside the bathroom door–or on the floor.
In the office parking lot, before I drove to the pharmacy, I sat in my car with the engine off. I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. Stupid. I mentally slapped myself in the head. Multiple times. What have I been doing for the past three years – after therapy, and yoga and more therapy? Where was the insight? Here I was, again, not listening to what my body was telling me. And it was getting pissed.
Then I was on the phone with my mom the other night and we were talking about yoga, and how I was coming back to it more to reconnect with my body than to do anything else. I told her I was trying to get back to a place where I trust my body, where I listen to it and know beyond question that it speaks the truth.
“You’ve been having that conversation with your body since you were in seventh grade,” she said.
And so it is. When I started regular yoga classes almost three years ago, in the throes of postpartum depression, my mantra in relaxation was “Trust, Truth.” Inhale. Trust. Exhale. Truth.
Here’s the thing. My doctor, bless her, is filling in for my inner wisdom. She’s my interpreter. I can’t seem to understand the signals, but she can translate. And I trust her when she says ‘you must rest.’ I trust her when she says, ‘you don’t need to do that much.’ I trust her when I do not, or cannot, trust myself for some reason.
Inhale. Trust. Exhale. Truth.
The truth is that I feel like things aren’t going my way right now. I feel like our lives are a little directionless. I feel unable to make decisions that I want to make. I feel out of control. Sometimes, I even feel trapped. But that little dysfunctional coping mechanism from way back has got to go. I don’t trust it anymore. I’m tired of my brain ruling over my body like a despot. It’s time for some compassion. Some lovingkindness. Some slack.
Oh yeah, and it’s definitely time for some antibiotics.