I’ve had a fantastic week of teaching in Seoul: attentive, earnest, responsive students, phenomenal translators, a beautiful studio, and compensation that affirms and values my work. I’ve had a great time with family and friends in meaningful conversations over beautiful food. I’ve had space for refreshment, films, and hanging out. What more could I ask for?
To tell you the truth, I am completely distracted by my chronic respiratory challenges. I can’t go 5 minutes without having to deal with rasping, dripping, snuffling, or some other creative expression of respiratory inflammation. But I refuse to spend the whole blog complaining. Instead I am contemplating:
- What are our bodies communicating through chronic conditions?
- How do we balance short-term relief with long-term solutions?
- How do we honor our whole selves, including our chronic conditions, without putting the rest of our lives on hold, or becoming that self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive person?
- How far will we go to heal, and is there a point when we just accept things as they are and stop trying so hard?
I’m at the point where, if there was a pill, I’d pop it. Mind you, I stay away from pharmaceuticals like chickens avoid foxes. I can’t tell you the last time I took anything as mild as aspirin.
What began in my 20s as seasonal allergies became in my 30s chronic rhinitis. In my 40s it blossomed into occasional asthma, bouts of eczema, and digestive sensitivities. In my 50s, the inflammation is chronic and moves around from place to place like unsettled refugees. It’s all part of the picture of autoimmunity, which my family embraces like a long-lost lover. It feeds on stress, our lifeblood. It’s linked to intergenerational trauma, displacement, immigration, and the everyday stresses of the oppressed. Or you could just say I have bad genes, a point of view I refuse to cave in to.
In my 20s and 30s I spent a lot of energy on environmental changes: dust mite-proof pillowcases, special vacuum cleaners, HEPA air cleaners… In my 40s and 50s I am focusing on bolstering inner capacity to self-heal through acupuncture, homeopathy, diet, and bodywork.
Last night, awake at 3am and unable to lie down because of the swelling going back and forth between my nose and my lungs, I fantasized about steroids. I’ve been determined not to repeat my mother’s health debacle, which culminated with the removal of her thymus gland and decades of Prednisone to treat myasthenia gravis. It led to her early death at 65 from the ravage of steroids on her vital organs.
But last night, I started counting backwards. Let’s say I outlive both my parents and make it to my 72nd birthday. That, to me, is a long enough life. I’m not one determined to last to 80 or 90. I accept steroids as a downwardly spiraling path, a dead end. But maybe, I mused in my half asleep desperation, mentally making a pact with the devil, I could be relieved of symptoms for oh, maybe 10 years, before my final demise?
My mother, also a chronic insomniac, weaned herself dramatically from sleeping pills in her final years, flushing the pills down the toilet. She hated the craving Ambien created as she became immune to its effects. But as she recognized that her death was near, she started taking them again. Why not get a few good nights of sleep before she dies? she thought. Nothing to lose at this point.
It’s a ridiculous approach to health, frankly, and it’s really about suppression than anything. But maybe there is a place for this? Maybe I can just admit that I got the short, painful life genes, and surrender to my doctor (on that mystical day I qualify for Medicaid/Medicare) and the mandates of allopathic medicine.
Truthfully I’d take the damn pills if they actually worked. But what I have observed and experienced is that often a cascade of other ills and side effects are triggered, so that a 60 year-old on one pill becomes a 70 year-old on 6 pills, and an 80 year-old on a dozen.
An important step for me may be to admit that I have a chronic condition. All my adult life it has felt essential to be available to my children and to put their needs before mine. As a teacher I have had to bring my strong, capable, trustworthy self to every class. Yet that has meant that I may not be bringing my whole self: tired, grumpy, wheezy, frustrated. I need to give my friends, family, and students the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will fully accept me as I am, not as I pretend or wish to be.
I have to dismantle my ableist thinking of my chronic condition as a moral shortfall, or a failure of will. While I believe in my heart that we should take full responsibility for our health, we inevitably encounter a limit to what we can do, and how far we can go. I need to compassionately recognize and honor those limits, wherever they may be on a given day.
Here’s to self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and ultimately, healing, whatever it may require.