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What Happened When I Leaned Into My Chronic Illness

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The smoke wafted from his open truck toward my tiny car. Sitting in the passenger seat, waiting for my driver to return, I had little choice but to sit tight with my windows baking from the rising spring heat.

We were both waiting for our shopping partners in the accessible parking outside of our local warehouse store. I was in the passenger seat and he in the driver seat of our respective vehicles.  In the span of about 10 minutes, the older man smoked through at least five cigarettes, languidly lounging the butt outside his red trucks open window, the grey tendrils slowly wafting toward my car and surrounding us both with a prevailing aroma. I was frustrated by his social inconsideration, but was too afraid to speak up and ask him to close his window. It wouldn’t be long anyway until my driver was out and so practicing my own preaching, I focused on the actions I could control and remained reading within my enclosed vehicular box.

Until the nausea hit me.

Until I could feel my mouth filling with saliva.

Until I wondered if I was going to embarrass myself in public by vomiting.

I took a few deep breaths, practicing the biofeedback lessons I learned in physical therapy, and willed my nausea to calm down. Living with gastroparesis, a condition characterized by slowed or stopped motility of my stomach, I often am hit with bouts of unexpected nausea and vomiting. This can be managed with sublingual (under the tongue) medications, breathing exercises and avoiding certain triggers (such as noxious smells), but sometimes it results in the need for emergency bathroom visits.

This time the nausea wasn’t going to stop.

I could feel the need to retch, and I realized with a panic I didn’t have anything to relief myself within the car discretely. I was terrified of embarrassing myself and breaking the social contract that vomiting violently in a BJs parking lot was not at all lady-like, and so I considered letting it go in my lap or the floor. I was so afraid that my body’s physical reaction would insult the stranger whom was assaulting me with his cigarette smoke in the first place, I considered sacrificing my clothing and my car instead of seeking relief outside.

In this moment a powerful phrase popped into my mind:

Lean into your illness.

Not entirely knowing what that phrase meant, I let my body guide me. I opened my car door, just a fraction, looked squarely at the smoking man who kept smoking, and a mere second later I retched violently into the parking space between us. His eyes shot wide and the hand holding the smoldering butt retracted within the red window like a lanyard let loose.

I wiped my mouth, daintily, and looked up at him.

He was no longer looking at me, and he kept his cigarette smoke contained within his vehicle until his elderly wife returned with her groceries, none the wiser of our unspoken interaction.

Living with an invisible illness is challenging, and often we can find ourselves battling with feelings of embarrassment and shame especially when faced with those challenges in public. I could have vomited all over myself, but I made the decision to seek relief, which meant opening the door and breaking a social rule. The thing is, that stranger was also breaking a social rule, and he didn’t think twice about how his smoke affected those around him. I’m not suggesting my go-to technique will be to all vomit in the general direction of people who are being rude to me, but I would like to challenge myself to lean into my illness a little bit more in the future.

What does this mean for me? It means I’m going to restock the car with emesis bags. More importantly, I’m going to keep practicing acts of defiant acceptance with my beautifully broken body.

Even if that makes a smoking man in a truck do a double take.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: May 21, 2021
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