I sat down to write yesterday, laptop on a pillow on my lap, in the armchair in my office space off the kitchen. The house was quiet and the birds sang to the spring outside. It took about 3 minutes before I surrendered and let my eyes close, because that is all they wanted to do. I wasn’t completely asleep, but I wasn’t completely awake either. Catnapping with my reading glasses on, laptop now closed on its pillow, half aware of how good it felt to just rest, half aware that I should be doing more with my precious time. I dozed for about 15 minutes, then went to take a walk around the block. That will wake me up, I thought. As I walked, I wondered why I was so tired at 11 o’clock in the morning. No answer came except, Just tired, no reason. No need to figure it out.
I’m going to be 44 in a month and a half. Not much different psychologically than 43, I am still officially middle aged. But I am aware of the process of aging in a way I don’t think I have been at other times in my life. The grays in my hair and the tiny lines around my eyes are not new, but their presence is in sharper focus, consistent. Sometimes I still get pimples, which feels like a cosmic joke, my body saying, Hey, at least you’re still a little bit of an adolescent. But what’s different at almost-44 is this: I don’t really trip out about it all very much anymore, not in the way I used to.
A wise friend who is now in his mid-seventies once told me – as I bemoaned the auto-immune challenges I have lived with for 20 years – that it is an illusion to think that it’s possible to attain perfect health while occupying a physical and very human body. Think about that: There is no such thing as perfect health. Bodies are machines, and machines get old and slow down and start acting up. And some act up long before they are supposed to – like my Tikva’s fragile little body that struggled so hard simply to get enough breath; like my friends who have courageously battled cancer in their thirties and forties.
It’s liberating, though, the idea that I don’t need to get to perfection because perfection doesn’t exist. Liberating to accept that I can still feel good – even thrive – within the container of an imperfect, fragile and slightly beat down body. I look at my 11-year-old daughter and see myself at her age, before the regular beat down of life had begun and I never even thought of the state of my health because it simply was. I think of that time and realize just how lucky I am that I could take for granted what is not always guaranteed – healthy and abundant food, warm clothing, shelter, safety, community, friends, family, love. Health.
I used to search for solutions, grasp at ways to heal from all that ailed me, ways to achieve the mysterious perfect, radiant health I was convinced everyone else around me had attained. I haven’t given up on the idea of radiance, the idea of thriving. But I’ve let go of perfect. And I no longer attach my wellbeing to a specific way of eating-being-living. I get annoyed, now, at the thousands of messages all around that promise complete healing of fill in the blank if only you eat fill in the blank, avoid fill in the blank and do fill in the blank every day, because if it worked for fill in the blank it will definitely work for you and me, guaranteed. I don’t trust it anymore, not simply because I’ve tried it all, but more because the only thing that’s been consistent for me no matter what magic bullet I’ve tried is that I get neurotic and obsessive and end up feel deprived because I can’t enjoy the things I love. I used to follow a doctor and author on Facebook who wrote about hormones and health for women. Once she posted on her feed the five things to stay away from in order to feel great and be healthy. They were: sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy and alcohol. I had to laugh because… Really? Honestly, what is the point of life if you can’t enjoy chocolate and cheese? I stopped following her feed.
I can’t help but be in awe of just how fragile we are in these temporary vessels; how incredibly miraculous it is that so much works when it works; how impossibly difficult it can be when it doesn’t; and how every single one of us – when we are truly honest with ourselves and with each other – struggles with something. There have been stories out there lately, brave coming out stories where people of all ages write about their struggles with illness, sharing on Buzzfeed or HuffPost or Salon about what they have always kept private because they thought they were the only ones struggling – because we can feel so much shame about being sick. The thing is, there is no failure in struggling in our bodies or with our emotions, and there should be no shame. Our culture is
afraid terrified of death, and so we shy away from looking illness straight-on. We deny it, we chase after the illusion of perfect health – the magic cure that will bring perfection – and we feel like failures when we don’t achieve it. We keep our illnesses to ourselves, we feel alone. Until one brave young woman posts a picture of her colostomy bag on Instagram, leading hundreds of other young people to come out publicly as courageously as she did; and hopefully some of the shame dissolves and we feel less alone in our fragility. Did you see them, those posts? I couldn’t take my eyes off them – these gorgeous young people who have struggled, some since childhood, with irritable bowel disease, a lifetime of hiding their shame and their challenges with a hidden illness while they struggled to simply feel well. And did you see the incredibly badass pictures of women baring their mastectomy scars; turning society’s shame on its ass, turning it into pride, into strength?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: The moment I have honestly and compassionately shared my own struggles with another person, I’ve let that person know that it is safe, acceptable and normal if they are struggling too. I’ve let them know that struggle is easier when you aren’t going through it alone. I’ve let them know that shame has no place where there is compassion.
I am not an athlete. I’ve tried many things, some for extended periods of time – boxing, rock climbing, dance, pilates, yoga, resistance training, running – but I’m not someone who craves exercise and keeping at it is not where I am most disciplined. In spite of this, though, I still feel active. At 5’5″ and 118 pounds, I can lift my 28 pound son up and down the stairs with one arm, full laundry basket in the other. Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely capable of tripping myself out with plenty of I should exercise more, my legs are flabby, I should eat more leafy greens, the pimples are hormonal and I need to get my hormones in balance and eat less chocolate, I’m scared of what the medications I take might do to my body long-term, etc. etc. etc. All that goes along with the house is dirty and I need to mop, I should be writing every day instead of a few times a week, tomorrow I will be more patient when my children are whiny, I need to make more time to be outside, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, etc. etc. etc. I’m human and the nag of perfection still whispers in my ears too.
I try to be gentle, though – something I hear myself asking my friends on a regular basis: Are you being gentle with yourself? What did you do today that is good for you? I try to remember to praise myself for all I do, for all I am. I try to express gratitude for my health even when it feels tenuous. I thank my (flabby) legs for carrying me (and my son) up and down the stairs, for walking me around the block. I try to let myself nap in my chair if that is what my body needs, and I enjoy a cup of coffee on those mornings when my son decides to wake up and stay awake at 4:30am.
To my friends and those I don’t know who are struggling, who want nothing more than to feel better in your bodies, who are fighting for your lives, who are feeling in a deep place all the pain that is everywhere around us:
I honor you.
I honor your struggle.
I honor your wellbeing.
I honor your good days and your shitty ones.
I honor the shame you long to release.
I honor your deep desire to feel better.
I honor your perfect imperfection.