How Chronic Illness Taught Me to Accept and Respect My Body
“A body has been given to me,” wrote the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. “What shall I do with it? So unique and so my own.”
I, like everyone else, was also given body, utterly unique and utterly my own, at birth. But what to do with it was always a perplexing question. Somehow it never seemed quite satisfactory. As a child it was coltish and awkward, a situation not helped by the lazy eye it developed when it was 7.
As an adolescent it suddenly developed all kinds of ideas, forcing the consciousness that was tied to it – the “me” I thought of when I thought of myself – to confront the messy, unpleasant realities of inconvenient breasts, unwanted menstruation, the possibility of pregnancy and the inevitability of sexual objectification and harassment.
Plus, it had all kinds of other flaws. As one person told me, “You’re never going to be strong like a man, and you’re not flexible enough for a girl.” Hurtful words, but completely true: it became evident pretty early on in my life that I was never going to crank out hundreds of one-armed pushups, but I also struggled to so much as touch my toes. I was always either too fat or too thin, too short or too tall, my hair was too slippery and wispy to hold any kind of a style for so much as five minutes and shoes never seemed to fit. Plus I kept tripping and hurting myself because of the aforementioned lazy eye, which made (and continues to make) things people with two functional eyes take for granted, like driving, frustrating or even frightening.
All this was made worse by the well-intentioned advice that bombarded me from all sides about how to fix all these problems and take control of my body, refusing to let its limitations limit me. The implication was always that there was some “me” separate from my body, which got to decide what to do and then make my body obey as a sign of my independence from its demands. Funnily enough, this always seemed to involve doing what other people told me, instead of making decisions myself.
By the time I was an adult I had internalized this and accepted the idea that there was a disembodied “I” that was supposed to be in the driver’s seat of my body, which just carried this virtual “me” around like my car carried around my physical self. And like a car, I could choose the make and model, change colors, switch out the wheels and remake my body to be whatever I wanted it to be. I just had to try hard enough.
Pushups are difficult? Keep doing them, and don’t worry about that stabbing pain in your shoulder. You’re better than rotator cuff problems, and the only thing standing between you and massive biceps is your own lack of will. Not flexible? Keep stretching, and ignore that nasty popping sound from your left hamstring. Injuries only happen to people who make mistakes, and mistakes are easy to avoid – here are five tips guaranteed to keep you safe.
Anyone can be as flexible as a rhythmic gymnast if you just commit to it. Too fat, too thin, not proportioned properly? You just need to try to the right diet – here’s my bestselling book about the magical foods that will solve all your problems. Tired? Exercise more – you’re just out of shape; resting will only make you feel worse. You’re only sick because of your false beliefs, and failure to achieve results is your personal fault, the result of not following directions closely enough. Do what I tell you, and you will achieve independence from what your body dictates.
Eventually my body got tired of this, and, like many subjugated people before it, rose up in violent rebellion. I responded with a vicious program of colonial oppression, designed to put it in its place and show it who was boss. It conducted an aggressive guerrilla war in reply, until, like many colonial oppressors before me, I was forced to admit defeat and negotiate a truce. Our conflict, I realized as I got sicker and sicker, was really a civil war, and we needed to stand together to face the barbarians of misinformation and medical indifference that were massing at the gate.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that, stricken with a debilitating and poorly understood chronic illness, one that left me so exhausted I could barely walk, and in so much pain I couldn’t sleep at night, I first turned to doctors for help, only to find that a lot of the “help” they offered was more of the same aggression I had already aimed at my body. When their instructions did nothing for me, or made me worse rather than better, I realized two very, very important things:
1. My body was mine, and no one else could know what it was feeling or what it needed as well as I could. It might not be perfect, but it was the only one I had or was ever going to get. I had to take control, not of it, but of the situation around it, and not let other people push me into doing bad things to it, even in the name of fixing it.
2. My body was not just mine, but me. I didn’t exist separately from it, and I couldn’t take it to the dealer and trade it in for a new one, no matter how much I might want to. Anything that hurt or endangered it hurt or endangered “me” as well.
Mandelstam was right: your body is a gift, unique and irreplaceable. Treat it as such. This might mean working to make it stronger, fitter and more flexible, or eating healthily, or going to the doctor. But it also means standing up for your body when others want to abuse it in order to make it “better.” Treat it the way you want to be treated, not like something separate from yourself, to be used up and thrown away on a whim. I am not glad I am ill. But I am glad that my illness has, finally, taught me to accept my body.
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Thinkstock photo via mashakotcur.