Throughout my life, I have had hundreds of conversations with people who, like me, have gotten sick or faced something traumatic that changed their lives forever. I have listened as they intimately shared their suffering and their victories.
There is a common thread in those stories; we struggled with the questions. So today, I thought I would share the question people often asked me during this time, the impact this question had, and the answers.
Question: You look great; what did you do?
I have to admit that this one is tough. My worst fears were realized when people asked this, especially as they treated me differently because of how my body looked.
When my body carries less weight, I get praised; which only feeds the fears I had all along, that I was less lovable or less worthy because of how my body looked. The reality is that this is true. Our society places significance on outer appearance as a measure of success. Everywhere I go, I am treated better by acquaintances and strangers.
Some would ask what I’m doing because they want to try it themselves. I know this moment of seeing someone else’s body and wishing my own looked better, healthier, skinnier like theirs. This makes answering the question harder because I know the pain of believing my body looks equal to being loveable.
When my body carries more weight, people ask if I’m ok, if I’m sick, most “subtly” suggest their diet, a cleanse they are doing or invite me to work out with them. They will often sneak into the conversation about the workout changing their life. Once again, my fears are fed that I am not good enough or accepted.
With so much emphasis on the outer appearance of our body, we are engaging with each other through misconceptions and bias, leaving us missing everything that matters.
So the answer is, while there are always fluctuations in how my body looks outside, the fundamental changes have been inside.
So, what is happening with me?
While I remember my childhood being fun, I also remember thinking something was wrong with me from an early age. I wouldn’t know until much later in life that we all feel this way at times. We all experience the Goldilocks principle; we are too much of this or too little of that, never just right. Additionally, I grew up learning that this was something to hide, that if others knew the truth, I’d be alone.
In my early teens, my grandfather vanished. Yup… vanished. Now, I see this as a crucial moment in my life when my depression took hold of me. At the moment, I knew I didn’t understand what was happening. I was drowning in sadness and felt like he had left because of me. Once again, I thought I had to hide this feeling. Everyone around me was so sad; they would hate me if they knew it was my fault.
Each time something happened in my life, this pattern played out. It was always my fault; I’m to blame, not loveable, not enough, and I have to hide this truth. I blamed myself when I was raped and unhappy in my first marriage. It would take many years to understand how I lived in my depression.
Let’s fast forward 20 years. I’ve been living this way every day through marrying my current husband, having two exceptional children, and my career. There are happy and sad moments, and here I am chugging along in life, unaware that it is getting worse.
What’s worse than depression?
The next phase of being sick seemed to happen all at once, like a light switch had been turned off inside me. It seemed that I was exhausted all the time. I would wake up more tired than when I went to sleep. This went on for weeks; I would brush it off with excuses, I was busy at work or volunteering blah blah blah. I never thought much of it.
Then, as though another switch had been triggered, I couldn’t eat without severe pain. It was hard to describe how I felt to doctors and specialists, just that it felt like a war was going on inside me. All I knew was it was the worst I had ever felt. Even looking back to being in labor with my daughter for a week. (Yes, I said a week, and that’s a whole other story) Honestly, that was easier than this. It would hurt to breathe; my lower and middle back would feel like I was being stabbed. My mid to upper belly would feel like there was an alien pushing its way through my body. In between eating, everything still hurt; I was constantly aching and in discomfort.
It was so hard to understand that the doctors ran every test they could think of and found… nothing.
I kept going back again and again and looking for an answer. Over and over again, my doctor would find nothing that could explain what I was facing. He would advise just going on a liquid diet and following up in 6 months. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Then, only six weeks later, things got worse, much worse. I now had high cholesterol and fatty liver disease, something I didn’t even know you could get without drinking. One year after my “normal” yearly check-up, I am sick. I felt like I was falling apart and had no idea what to do or why this was happening to me. No longer able to be calm, I broke down in my doctor’s office; why couldn’t he help me? Why wouldn’t he help me?
“I think you are just stressed.”
WAIT, STOP, what did you say?
I couldn’t believe my ears. I am not sleeping, can’t eat without severe pain, and am walking around in a fog of fatigue. Instead of helping me, you say, “I am just stressed!” I felt he didn’t care that and that he was tired of looking and brushing me off. Full of tears and feeling completely alone, I got up and left his office, never to return.
I felt so alone, lost, and ready to give up. I was hiding as much of this as I could. It had become my way of being. To do it alone, I hid the pain, appointments, and fear as much as possible.
I could not see how sick I was, but I certainly couldn’t trust another person who didn’t want to help anyway. I would cry in my car on the side of the road so no one would see me at home or work. My pockets would always have pain pills I would pop like candy to get relief. I had become so used to pretending and hiding the truth I couldn’t see what was so clear.
I was in complete burnout. It is easy for me to see it all today, and it is a bit laughable when I look back. I’m a pretty smart cookie; people know me as a positive problem-solving person. So how did I not see the puzzle come together before it came crashing down? In the pain of not being heard and the lack of care I had received, I isolated myself with extreme expectations to figure it out alone.
So what happened? I had spent 40 years feeling like I wasn’t good enough and had to fight through life and suffer alone. I worked 80 hours a week trying to meet the unmeetable expectations of my boss. Constantly chasing her approval, the promotion she told me I should want even when I knew I didn’t. Then, I volunteered an additional 1200 hours a year to find fulfillment. I skipped meals, sleep, and self-care every day.
And my body finally said STOP.
Getting sick helped me find health.
Every person who has shared their story with me has this moment when the illness or sickness is the source of a significant life-changing turning point. I’m in a yin yoga class at my friend’s studio. The teacher was transitioning us into a wide-legged forward fold, like everything let go all at once.
It is not surprising to me that this happened on my yoga mat. My first yoga class was in Vancouver a few days after being raped. A friend had seen my struggle, even as I tried to hide it, and invited me to come. Yoga became a source of relief in my life from that day forward, but I never really asked why. The truth that happened at that moment felt like a warm hug and an incredibly raw truth. I finally saw my life, my depression, and now my illness was screaming for me to see.
Transforming Illness into Wellness?
I remember being a little girl watching the Wizard of Oz and Glinda telling Dorothy she had everything she needed. So why do we forget that? Why are we so hard on ourselves?
So, how did my journey from sick to wellness begin? I had to face my depression, lack of self-value, the suffering I was doing alone, and get help to finally let go of all the false beliefs, pain, and suffering.
I had to stop doing everything alone! To authentically share all the things I was hiding and be free of them for good. To recognize that I had this great support structure and community who WANTED to help. For the first time, I allowed others to contribute to me. The game-changer… I saw myself and my worth through their experience of me. And I permitted myself to believe it.
I had to look at what made me feel calm, joyful, and peaceful in my life and do A LOT MORE OF IT. This helped me understand why I went to yoga, something I had never questioned. For more than 25 years, I had been in the practice of yoga without ever asking why. Today I can see yoga has been the soft pillow where I have gone to heal, caring for myself with all my stuff, a place where I feel safe just as I am.
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