Thursday, June 08, 2017

Waking Up Is Hard to Do

Ever since I was six or so, I have battled alarm clocks. They've jolted me awake. I've turned them off. I've hit snooze. I've gone back to sleep. I've tried to awaken myself gently with the classical music station or Aaron Copland CDs. No matter what, I can't get out of bed when the alarm says I should.

When I was a child, my father and I would race after the school bus. As an adult, I was chronically late for work. I'm not a morning person. I don't sleep well and rarely feel rested. Lymies don't feel well in the mornings anyway, and it didn't help that I'm easily startled and was being shocked awake each day with the equivalent of those paddles they use on heart attack victims. All morning I'd feel groggy and queasy and antsy, with adrenaline pumping through me.

A couple years ago I got sick and had to stay home from work for a few days. When I was ready to get back to the office, I took it easy for a few alarm-clock-free mornings while I finished recovering.

I discovered that sans alarm clock, my mornings were more pleasant. And I wasn't getting to work any later than I had been. Anyway, I had only a few months left in the office before I planned to start freelancing, so I made a radical decision.

I quit using an alarm clock.

Since then (if you don't count my final months at the office when I don't think I managed a single on-time workday—gotta be honest here), I have never, not once, been late for a morning appointment or departure, however early it was. It's been two and a half years.

The night before, I tell myself what I need to accomplish in the morning before my appointment or whatever. Maybe I need to shower and eat breakfast and finish packing for a trip. I don't even figure out how much time I need to accomplish the stuff or what time I think I should get up. I just run through the tasks in my head and go to sleep. I awake just in time to do exactly what needs to be done.

I have a point, and it's not to say that I've finally discovered my superpower. (My real superpower is editing.) It applies to everyone, whether or not they can accomplish alarm-free feats.

We need to listen to our bodies more.

We're taught not to. Depending on our spiritual tradition, we might learn that the body is bad and wants to lead us astray. Depending on how our families operated, we might learn that our feelings don't matter. Doctors test us with instruments and technology, but sometimes discount our own perceptions of what's happening in our bodies. We don't learn a lot about the way emotions express themselves physically or the importance of intuition.

When my health started falling apart in my twenties, I was a classic example of someone divorced from my physical and emotional feelings. Because of the way I had learned to tolerate and ignore pain, it took me years to take my symptoms seriously and see a doctor, and then it was hard for me to interpret, explain, and track how I was feeling. It took five years for me to get a diagnosis. I realize that's way better than what other people experience in getting a Lyme diagnosis, but I still believe that if I'd been more in tune with my body at the time, things would have gone faster.

Ignoring my body's signals also meant that I was regularly getting in relationships with unkind people and getting into situations that weren't right for me. I wasn't paying attention to the anxiety that churned through me, warning me that certain people were unsafe or that I was pushing myself past my limits.

For a few years after my Lyme diagnosis, I was extra kind to myself and tried not to force myself to do anything that felt uncomfortable. Of course there were still a lot of people I had to be around, and things I had to do, that exacerbated my symptoms. But I did my best to treat myself with kid gloves.

I think that was good for me because even though it felt extreme at times, it gave me space to heal and recalibrate. For example, I learned how to perceive small sensations that I hadn't paid attention to before. I had to rebalance my idea of how much pain is too much pain and what's manageable and what's negligible. I also had to learn that physical pain and negative emotions aren't going to destroy me, so I don't have to cut myself off from feeling them.

I think part of the reason so many people, especially religious people, mistrust the body is that they know the wires can get crossed and our bodies can send us the wrong signals. The problem is, we throw the body out with the bathwater rather than tuning in and trying to understand it better.

One of my favorite bloggers, Genevieve, says this:
My body has never been completely perfect or completely flawed. My body is just a vessel and no matter how much emotional or physical suffering it has brought me, I understand that my body above all else is just trying to exist. . . . This body is a gift, a curse, a challenge, and most of all a map to always find my way back to my heart. (Ship with No Sails, "This Body Is a Lesson")
For years I thought my problems getting out of bed in the morning had to do with a lack of self-discipline. I didn't realize that the alarm clocks I was relying on were distorting my body's ability to function, which in turn caused me to mistrust my body's knowledge of exactly what time to wake up. Maybe it seems silly, but realizing I don't need alarm clocks has reassured me that I can trust my body to guide me. That's why it was given to me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lyme Is Not the Problem

I was recently telling someone about what it's like to live in a dry climate after an entire life spent on the humid East Coast. A few weeks ago I visited the San Joaquin River Gorge, and as I lay on my back on a bluff above the river, feeling the sparkly air and looking up through leaves that are a slightly more yellowish shade of green than anything I remember seeing in the East, my body felt perfectly comfortable. I couldn't believe that I had never felt this way, and I realized that having spent my entire life in one climate, I had no idea what I was missing or that I was perhaps naturally suited to a different locale. I had adapted to humidity. I felt comfortable in it and was even worried that I would shrivel up in the dry West. (Seriously!) Instead, I discovered that in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, things feel a bit like heaven.

The person I was talking to somehow took this story to mean that I was finally starting to feel healthy again. Since this is undoubtedly true—I am feeling notably better than six, nine, or twelve months ago—I took a moment to revel in celebrating my recovery with another person. But later, the exchange really bothered me. My river story wasn't about Lyme disease at all. It was about realizing that we don't always belong in the places where we are. Just because our families or cultures or other social groupings have always done things a certain way, or our ancestors happen to have lived somewhere for decades or centuries, doesn't mean that our current place or lifestyle is where we belong. Just because a way of life makes some or most people happy doesn't mean it will make us happy.

I struggle with two alternatives when it comes to assigning Lyme a role in my life. On the one hand, I feel a need to regularly remind people that I have the disease and that it sucks. Lyme is one of those invisible illnesses; when people look at me, they don't see a sick person. There have been times when people close to me accused me of being a lazy slacker because I wasn't working full-time. All they saw was me lying in bed all the time. They couldn't see the muscle weakness, brain fog, nerve pain, and bone-level fatigue. With Lyme, you can look awesome but feel like something way worse than crap. And even as I continue to feel better, I still have to live with the fact that over a decade of my life has now been derailed and distorted by this powerful illness. I can't get back my supposedly prime grad school, career, dating, and childbearing years. For women in our culture, that's a big deal. People judge you for not getting your stuff together before you turn 40. Heck, I'd be happy just to have graduated from college.

But on the other hand, there is nothing unique about grappling with the universe's harshest realities and needing to figure out a better way to live. Sometimes when I'm sharing an insight I've gained in the context of Lyme, or standing on my get-therapy soapbox, I get the feeling that people are thinking, "Well, that's all good for her—she's a sick person." Sometimes it even feels like people are just waiting for me to recover from this pesky disease so I'll go back to being the nice, quiet, dutiful, rule-following girl I used to be and quit upsetting their status quo with my weird new ways of having relationships and being a Christian and living my life. They blame Lyme disease for changing me when really it catalyzed necessary changes—changes that many people need to make, but won't unless something up-ends their world so drastically that they question everything and absolutely can't live with the way things are anymore.

Lyme is part of me but it's not all of me. And, I suspect, that's what other people might say about their divorce, or their job loss, or their accident, or their loneliness, or their bipolar disorder. We're all wounded in this world.

Some people reduce me to an illness, to an unlucky girl who failed to beat the system and instead got bitten by a tick. I think that's because they want to believe suffering is something that happens only to certain set-apart people—never to them. And they want to believe that the insights, the life changes, the transformations of suffering don't belong to them either. Because that would be just too hard. They'd rather stay where things are comfortable . . . even though comfortable may turn out to be the worst place of all.