I guess I’m writing this more for myself than anyone else, but I felt compelled to publish it here.
I’m having a hard time. Just generally, in life. This has been true for a while now. A little over three years specifically. And one thing that I’ve learned about myself is that it’s difficult for me to admit when I’m having a hard time, and to allow myself to accept that I’m having a hard time. I always catch myself thinking that I have no right to call my life hard when there are so many other people suffering from exponentially worse circumstances than I am. And that is absolutely true. But what is also true is that knowing my hard time isn’t the hardest time possible doesn’t make it stop being hard.
Recently, my gastroenterologist told me that because my illness is caused by stress, I can expect it to continue until I’ve finished school and found a job. On the one hand, that’s not surprising. On the other, though, it is a pretty disappointing prognosis. Not the worst prognosis, of course, but not what I wanted to hear either. And in the weeks since then, I have been having lots of trouble with my appetite. I’m back to eating because I have to, even though I would really rather not.
So I’ve been reflecting on how hard life is with an illness. See, even as I type that, I find myself cringing a little, as if I’m not allowed to recognize that this is an illness, even if I have to see a specialist about it, because it’s not the worst. It’s like I’m not supposed to be having a hard time because I don’t always feel sick, and it doesn’t always disrupt my life in big ways. But it does disrupt my life in a lot of little ways, and that adds up.
Being sick makes everything harder than it should be. Like eating. Eating shouldn’t be hard, but it is. Every meal, every day. I have to find things that I can eat. I have to eat when I don’t want to. I have to keep eating the same meals that I am so tired of because they’re safe. Sometimes I have to deal with problems if I unwittingly eat something I shouldn’t, or if my body decides that something I eat all the time is suddenly not okay. I have to resist the temptation to eat things that I do want but know will mess me up. I have to eat at the right times because even if I don’t have an appetite, it will cause problems if I wait too long. And if I eat too close to bedtime, that’s a problem too.
And exercising is hard. Choosing to exercise when I don’t feel well, when my stomach is upset, when my throat and chest are burning with reflux–that’s not easy. But I also know that if I wait until I feel well, I’ll be almost entirely sedentary.
And sleeping. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper, so I don’t know if this connects to my illness specifically or if it’s just stress and anxiety that are causing problems. But sleeping shouldn’t be hard work. It is for me. The process of getting myself to sleep is often exhausting–just not in the way that leads to a peaceful rest.
It’s emotionally draining, eating and sleeping and keeping going. Add taking care of the dog, keeping the house clean and maintained, working, trying to make do on a tight budget, and having a hard time with my prospectus. I’m struggling. My doctor told me to do what I can to manage my stress. He said (and it was more caring than it might sound) to try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s probably good advice and I’m trying to be more conscious of letting things go. I even downloaded a meditation app to try to redirect my mental state when I’m worked up.
But the trouble is, how do I identify what the small stuff is when everything feels big? When even going to sleep at night is a struggle? When eating a meal is an exercise in self-discipline? I keep trying to find some area of my life that easy, something that doesn’t require any discipline or courage or emotional fortitude to do, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anything that fits that bill. Even the things I do that I consider self-care, things that improve the quality of my life like horseback riding and climbing, even those things aren’t easy. I feel like everything I do costs me something, emotionally or mentally, and I’m running a deficit these days. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to thrive.
What I’ve learned though this, my first experience with chronic illness, or what I am learning, is that sometimes success doesn’t look the way I thought it would. Sometimes success looks like hanging in there. Sometimes courage looks like resignation. Sometimes the best I can expect from myself is to not give up. I’ve learned–and this is terribly hard for me–that the best I can do is a conditional statement; my best three years ago was in many ways better than my best today. And–this is maybe the most important thing–I’ve learned to be kinder to myself and to others, because sometimes doing everything you can doesn’t look very impressive.