February 11, 2016
A few days ago I had one of those meltdowns that often accompany acute or chronic illnesses. I’d tried hard to be in the moment with where I am in my life right now. I’d read—and tried to apply—Toni Bernhard’s wisdom (derived from Buddhist thought) in her wonderful books, How to Be Sick and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Bernhard tells us that these meltdowns are normal and that, when they occur, we need to be empathic towards ourselves rather than self-critical. And I was trying to do this, but none too successfully.
At the heart of my despair was my sorrow for all the losses that living with illness entails: teaching; giving up a country house where I no doubt had contracted this disease; travelling; going to museums; socializing; spontaneity; writing, except for a very short time each day, and sometimes not at all.
It was Monday when I bottomed out, and not for the first time, and Monday is the day when my writing partner, Edi, and I check in with one another about how our work is progressing. She is in the final stages of another draft of her memoir—close to the end of this phase, but still drafting new and wonderful material about her life as a young woman in Sicily. And I am writing—or rather, trying to write—towards the book about my sister’s suicide when and for however long I can.
But the week before had been very difficult. Once a month I have to take Tindamax, in addition to all the other medications I take, including an IV antibiotic. Those of us being treated for Lyme Disease call this “the drug from hell” because if the Lyme is still present, it reactivates all our symptoms, and we feel much, much worse—the “cure” for this disease is sometimes very hard. During this Tindamax week, I’d spent more time than usual in bed, and in the bath (doused with Epsom Salts which help with pain). I hadn’t completed one of mini essays for my book in over a month, and about this, I was bereft. So that when Edi and I began our talk I asked if I could go first. And I did, and just wailed in despair because I couldn’t get to my writing.
What Edi said was this, and I offer you her wisdom because it was so helpful to me.
She asked me if I remembered when, after she’d earned her certificate to teach yoga, she’d injured herself, and couldn’t do any yoga at all. And, yes, I recalled this loss. She’d started integrating yoga into the teaching of writing, and she was thrilled at the prospect of investigating how to apply this to her ongoing work as a teacher.
“All I did each day,” Edi said, “all I could do was go to the yoga mat and just sit there or lie there. But I did it every day, and somehow it helped, and slowly, in time, I could do a little, and then a little bit more. But just sitting there was a tremendous comfort.
“So just go to your desk and sit there,” Edi continued, “for a very short time. You don’t have to write; you don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is sit for as long or as short a time as you choose.” (For those of us, like Toni Bernhard, who must write in bed because of illness, that might mean gathering some writing tools–notebook, pen–and take them to bed with us even though we might not yet use them.)
The yoga mat. The desk. The places where, Edi and I agree, we feel centered. And that was/is another of the losses that come with chronic illness: feeling centered.
So I did what Edi instructed me to do. I went to my desk, and as awful as I felt, a certain peace was present in my just sitting there. I ran my fingers over the keyboard, looked out the window and saw a bird in the tree outside, watched the neighboring children trudge to the bus stop on the corner carrying far too much in their overstuffed backpacks.
And not the first day, but on the second, I did write. And the first thing I wrote was a little hundred-word piece (more about that in another post) about a telephone call my sister might have made just before she died.
Edi was right. And I offer you her wisdom. During those times when the words don’t come, during those times when we have precious little energy or moments to devote to our work, just sitting in those spaces can be a source of comfort and joy. And sometimes, just sitting can help us break the silence that prevails even during difficult circumstances.