Writing and photographs by Sophie Pellegrini
2016 has thus far been one of the hardest years of my life, presenting me with new medical problems that have shifted my perspective on my body, shaped my day-to-day activities and decisions, and ultimately taken a significant hit on my overall quality of life. Some days are certainly better than others, and those better days are the ones when I can take a bit of a step back and try to view things more optimistically and objectively. The day I started writing this was one of those days.
We learn things from every life experience—especially the hard ones—if we’re open to it. Wisdom, something many people seek, is perhaps ironically most often gained through challenges that we didn’t necessarily sign up for. It’s arguably the easiest to realize that wisdom once you’ve faced the challenge and come out the other side. I’m still in the thick of my challenge with no clear endpoint, so I can’t really look back on things with hazy post-trauma rose-tinted look-at-what-I-learned-and-how-I-grew glasses just yet—I’m still sort of in the fuck-this-I-just-wish-it-wasn’t-happening mindset. That’s okay, and I’m accepting that. In the meantime, I’m challenging myself to find the lessons I’m learning from this experience as it’s happening—lessons that apply to many facets of my life, and hopefully yours as well. Here are a few things I’ve come up with.
- Accept that self-care is not selfish, and learn to advocate for yourself. I’ve learned the importance of advocating for myself and my health, even when it’s slightly uncomfortable or awkward in social situations, or when it slightly inconveniences others. For me, this means canceling last minute on plans with friends when I just can’t do it; it means speaking up and saying I can’t eat what’s being served for dinner. It means causing (usually relatively minor in the scheme of things) inconvenience, disappointment, and frustration to those around me, particularly those I care about. But learning to prioritize caring about yourself as well as caring for others is crucial—I know that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t be a good friend to anyone anyways. I can’t take care of anyone else without taking care of myself first.
- The truest friends are the ones that stick with you at your worst. There may be no better test of friendship and how much a person cares for another than when that person is at their worst. My truest friends have been patient and understanding; they’ve been allies in advocating for my health and well-being; they’re helped me find a balance between venting about what I’m going through and knowing it’s not something I always want to talk about. They don’t always get it right, and sometimes they say or do the wrong thing, but that’s not how I measure the value of their friendship. It’s in their persistence to try to get it right next time, and to be the best support they can be, even when I can’t be the friend I want to be in return.
- Feel grateful. Living in gratitude is a good place to live. For me, this means trying to take a moment every day—especially when I feel the worst—to focus on all the amazing things my body is doing for me every second of every day. When we’re ill, our bodies want to get better. Bodies want to heal, and they fight for us always. I’ve recently started writing myself little notes that say “remember gratitude” that I’ve stuck in places around my room, like in a pair of socks or an extra pocket of my purse, where I can stumble upon them to help snap me out of negativity when I need an extra reminder.
- Feel grateful…not guilty. Feeling guilty benefits no one. I’ve felt my fair share of guilt over the past few months, mostly in regards to the time and effort my family has put into trying to help me get well. They’ve accompanied me to endless consultations and procedures, even when it means missing the chance to sleep in or go to the gym, or rescheduling a meeting or hair appointment. They’ve tolerated me with patience when my physical illness has manifested in a shitty, irritable, generally not fun to be around attitude. I still get caught in tides of guilt every now and then, particularly when I really sit and think about how much anguish I’ve put them through (it’s hard to see your loved on sick, especially when you feel relatively helpless in helping them get better), but living in that guilt just perpetuates some of the problems that led to the guilt in the first place, so I remind myself to instead feel grateful that I have such a dedicated, loving, patient family. Gratitude is empowering; guilt is debilitating.
- …Thinking “it could be worse” is not a healthy way to live in gratitude. Like many things in life, this is about balance: it can be good to keep the glass half full and remind yourself that there are worse situations to be in, or even that your situation could be worse. To check in and ask yourself, is it really warranted for me to be this pissed by the fact that I don’t have cell service in this building? But bemoaning “first world problems” is different from genuine struggle, even if there are “worse” genuine struggles. Living an “it could be worse” mindset kind of sucks. I know, because I’ve tried it. It’s okay to embrace the pain and suffering you’re in, and to validate it by letting yourself feel it. If you beat yourself down for struggling because you think your struggle doesn’t matter compared to someone else’s, you’ll only be worse off—and that someone else doesn’t benefit anyways.
- Be wary of the toxic power of comparison. I’ve spent a few weeks on a restricted and unusual diet. I’ve been embarrassed because it doesn’t fit the picture of what is traditionally considered “healthy”…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the best thing for my health right now. When I compared my plate of food to the plant-power based diet my sister adheres to, I felt inadequate and ashamed. But while that diet serves my sister brilliantly, it would be greatly detrimental to me to eat the same way, and as I come to accept that, eating my own weird diet becomes a bit easier. Sometimes, comparing yourself to others can be motivating and empowering. But other times it can take over, or become petty and therein harmful. Particularly in our social-media driven world, opportunities for comparison are everywhere (you’re too fat, you’re not stylish enough, you don’t have enough friends, you can’t land as good of a job as her, you don’t do as many fun and exciting things as the other people in your class…etc.). Be aware of the patterns of comparison you may get stuck in, and explore the best way of avoiding these patterns.
- Comparison can also be an enemy of empathy. Challenge yourself to live with compassion, and know that every person is fighting multiple battles that you are unaware of. Instead of making (often unconscious) assumptions, consider all the things that you don’t know and understand before passing judgment on the way someone else looks, acts, or lives. It’s something I hope to see from others when they notice certain things about me that I’m self-conscious about at this point in my process.
- Don’t be afraid to look for (and accept) healing in “unconventional” places. When you find healing, accept what feels good, and hold on to it. Of the handfuls of doctors I’ve seen in the past few months, one in particular sticks out very clearly as the most helpful—my biodynamic craniosacral therapist. Technically speaking, she’s not even a doctor, but my sessions with her have felt far more helpful and healing than any appointment or suggestion from the other medical professionals I’ve spent hours with over these past months. In some ways, she’s become a bit of an actual therapist to me, even though that’s not what I’m technically seeing her for. It’s funny how sometimes we find our true healers in different places than we’re taught to expect, under different labels than perhaps anticipated. I’m so grateful to be part of a family that does not brush aside less conventional medical healers as gimmicks or nonsense—and I’m grateful to myself for being open to the possibilities. While seeing this therapist may not cure my illness, I leave every session feeling a bit better than when I went in, and that’s powerful at this point in my life, so I’m embracing it as much as possible.
- The only way out is through. During each appointment with the aforementioned cranoisacral therapist, she imparts various golden nuggets of wisdom on me, often in the form of open-ended questions for me to think about, or gentle reflections on something I have said. During one of our first sessions, she reminded me that the only way to get past many true struggles is to go right through them. To feel everything in all its depth, and to delve to the root of the problem, as painful as that may be, because it’s the only way to truly heal our body, mind, and spirit. We try to stick bandaids over these larger issues—in the form of everything from ibuprofen to denial—using things that don’t actually heal the root of the problem, because we are so desperate for temporary relief, and we don’t want to deal with the often very difficult experience of the process, even though it’s the only way to get to that other side of true healing and health. It’s understandable, but it’s important to also be aware that taking short cuts may take a toll on the end game.
- And trust the process. It’s okay to make peace with the process—it’s good. It’s okay that I’m in progress right now, and that I don’t have all the answers, or tons of my own wisdom to impart. The journey is as important as the destination, and no less worth celebrating. I’m certainly not celebrating this medical struggle, but I can celebrate myself for the strength I’ve shown in facing it. I can remind myself that it’s okay to be angry, and sad, and frustrated. I can challenge myself to have faith that things will resolve; that I will find a way to live with the hand I was dealt, even if how exactly I’ll do it is currently unclear. Trusting my process is what will allow me to actually fully embrace these lessons into my own life instead of just identifying them. This too shall pass.