A few years ago, I came down with chest cold. I was sick, very sick. When I went to the doctor, she told me it was just a virus, to take over the counter medicine, and call her if I wasn’t better in a week. So, I did. I took all the medicine and reported to work the next day. My eyes were glassy, I was very pale, and everyone could see that I was too sick to be there. Everyone, that is, except me. It wasn’t until the end of the day, when the medicine wore off, that I realized how sick I was. So, I went home and waited to get better. After a few more days, and some feverish Facebook rambling, my nurse friend called to say, “I don’t care what the doctor told you. You are too old to have a fever for this long. You need to be seen again.”
So, I did what she said, and returned to the doctor. It was full blown pneumonia. I spent two weeks at home, wondering when I should go back to work. Everyone I know, including the doctor, said that I should listen to my body. They warned against pushing myself too hard and having a relapse that could be much worse than the first episode. I panicked inside. I am book smart, have at least a bit of street smarts, and am occasionally told I might be wise … but I had no idea what they meant by listen to my body.
I called my sister, the doctor, and whispered through tears, “what do they mean when they say to listen to my body?” She chuckled at my drama and acknowledged my dilemma.
We were taught if we could go to work, we should. Period. Exclamation point. End of discussion. If there was a commitment on the calendar and our parents could drag themselves there, they did. You see, we were Derricks. We’re made of “tougher stuff.” We just keep going. Our excellent work ethic has taken us far, but we may have missed some of the subtler points about self-care along the way.
She thought about my question for a while, and then quietly answered, “when you feel like you’re ready to go back to work. Wait two more days.” And that is what I did. I was abundantly clear that if my body had a language, it was a language I knew nothing about.
Over the past couple months, I’ve come back to this question again and again. Recovering from a cancer diagnosis and major surgery has catapulted this question into the forefront of my life. What does it mean to listen to my body? And how do I learn its language? The answer to these questions now seem vitally important.
Once a few years ago, I was at a conference and the room was terribly cold. Everyone at my table was shivering, complaining, and ignoring the speaker. Until he walked us through an exercise where we were to take responsibility for our own experience. In this exercise, he told us that we were to be “creators” in our experiences rather than “victims.” We could identify a problem, like being cold, and then take responsibility for finding a solution.
As a table, we were stunned to realize we had all responded to our very real discomfort as victims. We sat trapped in our chairs rather than simply walking upstairs to fetch a sweater. As we ran through the list of reasons we thought we did this, we identified that we did not want to be rude, or distracting, but we also acknowledged that we simply didn’t think of taking care of our needs as a reason to leave.
A writer I enjoy describes our relationship with our bodies as a friendship, a lifelong relationship of mutual benefit. Our bodies take care of us, by regulating our breathing, handling heart beats, sugar levels, and a million other things we don’t have to worry about. We take care of our bodies by handling nutrition, temperature regulation, and choices around health and safety. I love this image of friendship. This is not the relationship I’ve had with my body over the years, but it is the one I want to cultivate moving forward.
I’m starting small. I’m learning to listen to the ache in my neck from sitting crooked in my chair or the tightness of those shoes that never really fit. I’m paying attention to the way I feel after I eat, whether I feel energized or lethargic, and adjusting my diet accordingly. I’m getting outside for sunlight and fresh air. I’m staying hydrated. I’m slowing things down enough to pay attention. It’s time for me to reconnect with this old friend.
Most importantly, for me, I’ve decided to be kind to my body with my thoughts. Instead of beating myself up for all the ways I don’t measure up, I’ve decided that this body has been through enough. It lived for over fifty years without a major incident, birthed three children, and recently undergone major surgery. My body has been a faithful friend as I’ve lived my life as though it were invincible. It’s time for me to return the friendship.
A decade ago, a counselor told me I lived my life from the shoulders up. She did not mean it as a compliment. Even I could see that she was right. She challenged me to get out of my head and into my body. She wanted me to learn to feel my emotions in my body, and to understand how my thoughts affected my body. I learned a lot in my time with her, but life went on and I was busy. There really wasn’t time to prioritize these things. Now, however, I feel as though my life depends on it. So, I am making time and finally learning the language of my body.