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How Being Vulnerable Helped Me Find My Strength With Chronic Illness

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I sat in the tub, watching the water run, then closed my eyes as tears flowed and my head drooped.

“Its OK,” said Rose as she ran the washcloth over my back. “Just relax now. Do not feel ashamed. You may feel at your limit, but you can have confidence in the strength still inside. I pray you find rest and peace right where you are now and in the future.”

I looked at the bubbles of trailing shampoo and focused on simply breathing and reciting every little thing I could think of to have gratitude.

My life had come to a screeching halt five years earlier with the contraction of Lyme disease. Then came severe gastroparesis (paralyzed stomach). After a month of intense pain, vomiting and passing out, I spent a week in the hospital followed by a stay in a nursing home. I still vomited every meal, proved resistant or allergic to treatments aimed at reducing the effects of gastroparesis and rapidly lost a lot of weight. I had never felt more vulnerable.

I was now so weak I couldn’t walk without a walker and often used a wheelchair. Bathing fell into my most vulnerable place. I was too weak to wash my own body and tended to pass out in showers. Thus, Rose stepped in to help me. I felt ashamed of my body, ashamed at my weakness and ashamed at how far my life had devolved. I had separated from my fiance, lost many friends, distanced some of my family, lost my ability to work and be an independent, social woman in my 30s.

Fast forward five years — I sat in the shower with my caregiver, Biw, gently rubbing my back with a soapy washcloth. I watched the shower rain down, then closed my eyes and focused on the warm water flowing over my face. For a minute I felt “normal.” The water showering over my head erased my body shame in that moment, which had only increased by the presence of a feeding tube, worries of my present and future and grief for all that was lost. And I thought of Rose.

What I have learned is that in my most vulnerable moments, true healing can be found. Submitting to the care of others, in very personal ways, I have learned to extend grace, compassion and understanding to myself. I would like to say this eliminated my shame, but it hasn’t. Gradually though, I am able to acknowledge my internal strengths of persistence, patience and curiosity.

As someone who had been trained from a young age to believe I would not succeed in life and would always “ruin everything,” I have always competed with myself to do better, to be a better person, and yet I never felt I measured up. Currently, I am basically homebound with a caregiver daily, leaving the house primarily to go to the doctor. When I start to see this as a failure, I look inward and see someone who is strong enough to live every day with pain and breakdown in my body, someone who is resilient, someone who has found peace in gratitude and prayer.

I have come to accept the present for what it is; with each rising of the sun I know the strength and grace I need to make it through the day will come, no matter the challenges it brings. It’s hard to believe a simple bath, with all defenses down, could lead me down this better internal path. I guess it’s a bit like Dorothy who “had it within herself all along.” It just took surviving a few tornadoes of life and trusting the path set before me to bring a bloom of inner strength and grace for myself and others.

Image via contributor

Originally published: March 3, 2020
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