According to my mother, as soon as I first laid eyes on Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, I uttered one of my first words in imitation of his classic demand: Palm outstretched, I said, “Cookie.” I was eight months old, and a childhood obsession was just beginning. Over 30 years later, I wonder if I focused so much on cookies because I sensed that I would someday be allergic to the milk and gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, and spelt) found in my favorite treats.
A few weeks ago, a friend told me that my mind works “like lightning.” Edith said she could tell that I was always in dialogue with myself, “strategizing, and analyzing my next move,” even when I was quietly sitting still. Chuckling, I thought of my constant cookie scheming, which obviously took place long before I discovered that I’m a “strategy type” in a workplace personality test. I recalled a former therapist’s declaration that I was one of her most “cerebral” patients, and that I needed to get out of my head and into my body more. That’s tough, because the world of my mind is a welcome safe haven from the hostility I feel from my physical body. My overanalytical brain is a gift—and maybe also a side effect of my lifelong experiences with chronic illnesses, which are ongoing health conditions that are often long-term.
While growing accustomed to being sick, I have discovered that my body works like lightning, too: sensitive, sharp, talkative, and always demanding to be heard. Throughout my life, I’ve had my fair share of longstanding health issues: I’ve suffered from an ever-growing list of allergies, asthma, chronic sinusitis, Graves’ disease, arthritis, and, just to add into the mix for fun, some painful stomach and reproductive issues. When feeling ill is familiar, it can be tempting to retreat into one’s head and fixate on other things (like cookies!!!) in an attempt to escape the reality of the discomfort you’re experiencing. For years, I have spent most of my time focusing on everything that happens above my neck, like thinking and speaking, and less on physical movement and embodiment. Not everyone manages their illnesses this way, but it worked for me for years, until it (very painfully) didn’t.
From freshman year of college, when my sinuses were so inflamed that I was pulled out of class to go to the hospital, to a mortifying moment at work when I threw up in front of my entire office at my desk (hilariously, everyone thought I was pregnant), to fainting at the dress fitting for my wedding gown, my body always lets me know that she ultimately calls all the shots—despite my productivity-driven attempts to think and overwork my way towards wellness.
I’m frustrated by the obstacles that my immunity-phobic body puts me through, but I have slowly accepted the fact that my body is sensitive and requires extra attention to self-care. Instead of lamenting the fact that my body functions differently than others’, I’ve shifted my focus towards how it has expanded my sense of empathy and my perspective about my life’s priorities. I know what it feels like to deal with the stigma of sickness when others are ignorant about your disease or illness: I often think that if I hadn’t experienced health challenges, I might not understand what others are going through when they are chronically sick. It is hard to comprehend how debilitating a chronic condition can be until you have one. Now, I have a greater respect for what it takes for people to get out of bed, show up, follow through, and create things when they are managing an illness.
After years of apologizing, resenting, and feeling guilty for something that is out of my control, I have embraced that my body is my ultimate spiritual teacher. She’s a perfectly flawed Zen master who forces me to listen to the messages I’m getting from aches and pain, hydrate like a mermaid, and to cherish sleep as if it were a sacrament, because it’s the minimum my body needs to thrive. Acceptance is not resignation. I can’t say that having a chronic illness of any kind is easy or fun, but I can say that managing treatment and developing coping strategies gets better with time. While I’m not a doctor, I know how it feels to feel vulnerable and frustrated when your bodily functions won’t cooperate with your plans and dreams.
Here, I’m sharing a few things I’ve learned that help me get through flare-ups and worrisome bouts of stress that come with feeling sick. I can’t promise healing, or a cure—but I can assure you that these tips can help make the process suck a little less.
When you first find out you’re sick, it can feel confusing, scary, and unfair. While it’s natural to process whatever feelings you might have, it’s important to remember that learning more about to treat your illness can be empowering. Learning more about what is happening with my body, what treatments are available, and what kind of team (doctors, acupuncturist, therapist, or puppies for stress relief) I need to work with, helps me feel more in control of my healing process.
A caveat: The internet can be both your friend and foe when it comes to learning about your condition. To make sure you don’t get sucked into the rabbit hole of message boards. Some message boards seem to be filled with people who either had miracle stories, trolls, and/or people who had the worst experiences ever. Instead, check out teen-friendly sites like Go Ask Alice, TeensHealth, and the Office of Women’s Health.
People like to be right. But it doesn’t mean they are—and this sometimes includes doctors.
If I had a dollar for everyone who has ever said, “But you don’t look sick,” when I have had to leave an event early to go home and rest, I could start a college fund for Rookie readers worldwide. You are the CEO of your body. You know how your body feels more than anyone else does—occasionally including the people who are supposed to treat it. If any doctor, nurse, or other health professional tells you that your suffering is “all in your head,” seek a second, and third, professional opinion.