How well do you know your body? Can you translate all its messages, its pleas, demands, gentle nudges? Do you speak its language?
It turns out, that I do not. My body is all greek to me. Not only is it completely incomprehensible, it is an enemy, a double agent that betrays me time and time again. My skin is a battleground, my insides a war-torn wasteland.
It wasn’t always this way: as a child my body was slim and brown-skinned and lithe, made for climbing trees and running fast, smudged with pine sap and sea salt. And yet, I paid it little attention.
Then came puberty, something longed-for and lusted after now suddenly too real, too adult. Once a month I would feel as though my ovaries were trying to melt their way down to my knees, besieged by blood and leaks and nausea, left red-faced and walking like a cowboy around lumpy sanitary pads. Nobody tells you about that. The fact that you will spend three to four days of your period curled into a ball around a pillow, breathing as if you’re in labour, crying at the slightest provocation….this is left conveniently un-mentioned.
Hair in places I didn’t want it. Spots. Grease. Boys would laugh at the way my breasts bounced when I moved, so I stopped running. Girls would laugh at my sticking-out ears and my pouty mouth, so I wore my long hair down to cover as much as possible. My eyesight grew steadily worse until I was entirely dependant on spectacles to be able to see the faces in front of me.
I’ve written before about the peculiar distrust of your own brain that’s often felt by sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it’s only recently that I have begun to realise the similar relationship I have with my own body. I don’t know what it’s doing. I don’t know what it wants from me.
One December, my body decided that getting rid of the freeloading little appendix we’d been carrying around for seventeen years would be painful and horrible and necessitate a traumatic hospital experience, and would therefore be an excellent strike in the war against me. (My body is an appallingly good battle tactician).
The coup de grâce though was the chronic idiopathic urticaria that came along as a result. All that meddling had royally screwed my immune system, which was now carrying out 24/7 drone strikes on itself, like an eye-twitching chain-smoking soldier who’s been in the field too long.
Chronic idiopathic urticaria.
Chronic: there was no known timeline for this one (“Could be twenty years or so,” one doctor told me cheerfully”).
Idiopathic: no known trigger.
Urticaria: raised, itchy hives on the skin. With a side-order of angioedema: swelling, in my case of lips, cheeks, joints and eyelids. Super attractive.
Countless pills, homeopathy, trips to far-away specialists, diets and relaxation exercises and blood tests blood tests blood tests. Life soon settled into a rhythm, six pills a day began to keep the condition at bay enough for me to lead a relatively normal life. But like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight, if I didn’t keep to a carefully strict timetable I would turn back into a pumpkin. I’m not even joking, that’s sometimes what I looked like.
Last december, after thirteen years of dealing with the condition, I began to push my medication timetable. I began to find that I would occasionally forget to take my pills, only remembering the next morning – a thing previously so inconceivable that I may as well liken it to forgetting to put on shoes before leaving the house. So I continued, slowly easing away, sneaking off the battlefield by playing dead and moving imperceptibly away from the fighting.
Because that’s the problem when you’re battling your own body – it is with you, everywhere you go. It owns your eyes so it sees everything, it is your skin and your muscle and your bones, so it knows every move you make.
Now, after a few months of blessed freedom, I am in the midst of a period of upheaval and stress that has resulted in bouts of broken sleep and a constantly churning stomach. I am back on medication. I have lists of foods I should and should not eat once more. My body just won’t let me go.
I am lucky in so many ways – I have had some health issues but I’ve never faced the ultimate betrayal of a degenerative disease, of cancer multiplying inside you, coming from nothing until it has utter control of you.
But I am tired of the constant struggle. I want to love my body – after all, it allows me to see beautiful people and places, to hear music that makes goose-bumps shiver up my arms. There is sour sherbet and cinnamon and lamb kofta and pepperoni pizza to taste, water to swim through, arms to hold the people I love. I don’t want it reduced to the bad feelings, to maintenance and upkeep and medication that must be taken on time, menstruation suppressed and stomach muscles deceived.
I want to be my body’s friend. I want to know what is asking of me and not begrudge the things it needs. We should be partners, but right now I feel disconnected from both my mind and body. I am a soul floating somewhere between the two, tethered but not a part of things and certainly not in control.
How do I do this? How do you start a conversation with your body? How do I call a cease-fire and bring in the negotiators in this war that’s been raging so long?
Does anyone else feel the same? I don’t know if this is peculiar to me or if the people around me just don’t feel the need to constantly and hugely over-share, like me.
I am trying. I am trying to be more careful about what I eat. I’ve joined a gym – to swim, and perhaps the odd yoga class – you won’t catch me working out. But I am trying to be healthy, and mindful, and calm. Because the more I think, and write, and ponder this everlasting battle, I wonder if perhaps my body and I are both being controlled by a shadowy overlord: the brain. And the more I think about my brain – after spending a while to marvel over how weird it is is to use my brain to think about my brain – the more I feel sorry for it. It’s done some wonderful stuff, but it has its problems. I want to help it.
And perhaps that is the key, in an odd sort of way. By feeling disconnected from my brain and body I can feel compassion, empathy, without the shame and guilt I’ve struggled with in accepting there is something wrong. I can help as I would a friend who was struggling with anxiety, or health issues. I wouldn’t judge anyone else for physical or mental problems, as I am seemingly judging myself.
So. I will give my brain some advice as a friend. I will prescribe it a remedy as if I was a concerned doctor.
Early nights. Sleep. Hot baths. Good food and good friends. S-l-o-w-n-e-s-s. Smile more. Breathe deep. Love. Make stuff but don’t judge the result.
Let it all go. Sometimes you say stupid things, sometimes you mess up. You miss deadlines, you don’t work as hard as you should, or too hard. There are things you are not good at. There are things that fail through no fault of your own, there are things that fail because, no matter how hard you tried, you didn’t do it right. And that’s okay.
Don’t hate your brain, or your body. They’re trying as hard as they can.
Be kind to yourself.
Be kind to yourself.
Be kind to yourself.