Nearly everyone has a default, a go-to place where they think they can hold off the tide of inevitability. Sometimes it is an addiction to being intensely busy, for others it's running as fast and as far away from any uncomfortable feelings it's possible to go. Mine is wanting to know, hoping that if I ask the right questions I'll get the right answers and then find a way to dig myself out of whatever mess I'm in. Even if that means I'm using a teaspoon not a shovel. Many have called me over-analytical and there is some truth in that. I know that my constant state of enquiry has allowed me the illusion of control. But what an illusion. It's also meant that when things have been really tough, like now, I can tell myself I am learning something - I may be suffering but I am not stupid !
Long term illness has got me a questioning many things. Why am I ill ? How can I can better ? Will I ever get well and, perhaps the most enduring, How can I live this way ? My experience of illness so far is one of dealing with one loss after another. Loss of health (obviously), loss of independence, loss of a working life, loss of friends and a social life, loss of travel. The list is long. And as much as the grief hurts it is something I find easier to live with than the grating anger and resentment for feeling so left out in the cold. Needing to know why, or what to do with the 'why' doesn't help me one bit.
A friend suggested I listen to Kristin Neff who calls herself a 'self-compassion evangelist'. What I find most interesting about her work is that she encourages self-compassion even with one's self-critic and the most self-destructive things we tell ourselves. Hearing this for the first time was like living with air-conditioning your whole life and suddenly have someone open the window and breathing in real air at last.
Before this any self-compassion exercises had been limited to a wholesome meal, a bath with essential oils, candles and the Bach Cello Suites. I may have managed to squeeze in a cursory acknowledgement that I was not the only one in pain on the entire planet, but with no real sense of connectedness. I lit more candles, cried more tears hoping the gentle music would save me from my most uncomfortable feelings. But I still felt bitter, still felt eaten up with such a roaring anger it is a wonder its fires hadn't burnt London for the second time.
It is only in the last few days, when I've been feeling angry, hurt and ashamed that I decided to share my feelings with a few friends online who also live with chronic illness. My friend Toni Bernard reminded me that 'there is no end to how much self-compassion we can give ourselves' and that even what I considered the most distasteful parts of myself deserved my love and attention. It seems all so clear written down but I am only just learning kindness.
The essential oils, the cut flowers, the warm bed are much needed accoutrements however this is only start. For years, far pre-dating my current state of health, I've fought against what I considered the most ugly parts of who I am. I wanted to eradicate those feelings. Years later I am still the hyper-sensitive, volatile person I always was. And perhaps, just perhaps, this illness has led me to a place where I can begin to accept and love who I am, every part of me, even the part who carries a big stick and dreams of torching everything.