I often forget that my life is somewhat unconventional– That it requires further explanation to obvious meet-and-greet questions. I forget that answering the typical questions that arise with meeting someone new or catching up with someone old will often start a domino conversation effect that can go any number of ways. Sometimes it’s unintentionally critical questions, sometimes it’s the strangest of medical advice, and other times it’s this awful but easy-to-spot look that no matter what words they’re saying, it’s only the word doubt that’s written all over their face. Of course they’re not all this way, and sometimes when I let down my guard and am honest about my circumstances, it opens the door to friendships and closeness I would never have expected. There’s something about sharing a hardship (without being overly needy) and being heard openly, that evokes a certain trust between two people. It says I have seen the darkness too, and the space between them lessens.
There’s a whole spectrum of reactions, and even though I forget temporarily, for the most part I’ve grown used to and so prepare myself for the array of conversational tones and and twists and turns our exchange may take. It took a while but by now I can usually see where things are going fairly quickly and attempt to steer a conversation going nowhere either back to the other persons life or to an entirely new subject altogether. It’s for the best. Outside of the new and complicated, sometimes awkward anecdotes that come with simply talking to a person, my life feels very normal. On a personal, day-to-day level, I’ve grown used to the terms by which I live, and it’s usually when I share these terms with someone else, my large set of footnotes, that I remember how not normal my situation is. I long for the day when I can complain about my jerk boss, commiserate about the insane landlord of my apartment, (which in my fantasy always has big windows) and when my roommates are no longer my parents. No offense to them–they no doubt long for that day, too.
Living life with a chronic illness means a few things for me: It means being 32 and not working a real job. It means taking 25ish pills a day and still living under my parents wing. It means a lot of solitude and a lot of talking to the dog–probably more than to humans. It means I typically smell like BenGay or peppermint oil, and wear an ice pack on my head almost always. These things have aligned themselves under my own heading of conventional. They are my normal. But I forget that they’re not and require an often long, boring story that explains “my normal” that I’ve grown to cringe whenever I have to tell it. Reciting how and why you arrived at here and now, over and over and over out loud, you almost start to feel like a phony. I don’t know what it is, except that maybe after so long of recounting a story, one that could easily be labeled as unfortunate, in such a casual tone of voice that’s inarguably bored with itself, you begin to question how it is that you’re happy. How it is that you consider such ridiculous conditions as if they were commonplace and acceptable. You start to wonder why you aren’t more up in arms about the whole thing.
I don’t know when it became such a frequent place to end up, but lately I always find myself hanging in the tension between two opposites, struggling to find the fragile balance in the middle. Feeling bide between two of anything is usually unsettling at best, but can often (for me) be exhaustive torture. The two forces aren’t necessarily always polar opposites. Sometimes they’re merely dissimilar, but operate on the same plane. Think surrender and giving up. Gone unchecked, one can quietly ooze into the other, and suddenly you’re nowhere you ever meant to be. Sometimes they’re contradictory forces: maybe your heart wants something that the head doesn’t like. Other times it’s reconciling two truths at odds, choosing between two options and stuck in the messy mud of the middle. Since I consider myself pathologically plagued by indecisiveness, I seem to find myself living in this “tension between two” all the time. It’s trickled its way down from me flailing between two important choices, to agonizing over things as inconsequential as toothpaste. I’ve spent way too many hours of my life struggling in that aisle.
Currently, I find myself in the center of multiple conundrums, questions, opportunities, examinations.. Not all of them are quantifiable, and many of them seem to be ongoing or recurring. I lay in bed at night and the questions fly around the room like some kind of adult mobile made of cosmic curiosities and pitiful choices. Here’s an example of the things my brain has been tangled up with lately:
*How do I surrender to my circumstances and accept my reality without giving up on trying to make things better?
*How do I talk about being sick without getting caught up in my story?
*How do I write bearing the reader in mind without compromising authenticity?
*How do I maintain a sense of autonomy and identity knowing full well I am reliant on the help of others.
*How do I engage in advocacy that is proactive and realistic without losing myself and my worth in every day outcomes?
How do I satisfy this sweet craving without overdosing on gummy vitamins?
Welcome to what Carl Jung called “The Tension Between the Opposites.”
Jung taught that if you can withstand the tension between two opposites, if you can sustain the angst of being suspended in the middle for longer than what is typically comfortable, often possibilities and solutions will arise you wouldn’t have considered before. It can be an enlightening experience, but not easy, and often painful while in the thick of it. The waiting is tough. But if you can hold that tension, you’ll usually encounter what he referred to as ‘The Transcendent Third’. This new ‘third’ solution can involve both or neither of the two pieces you’re between, but in the wait, you can reach deeper into consciousness, and often that’s where the wisest answers can be found. “There will be two opposite approaches for solving it. Neither solution will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.”
The world is so fast now. We rarely take the time to be still, to even allow a silence, mistaking it for boredom, or a space that must be filled. If you’d like to experience the discovery of the Transcendent Third, you have to answer the question that Lao Tzu posed on the matter: Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles? I’d say most of us don’t. Or we do but fail to realize it, living among a pace that’s fast and noisy and nearly impossible to keep up with.
Lately I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of surrender; something I continue to learn and accept almost every day it seems. Among everything that being sick has taught me, surrender seems to stand out the most. Difficult beyond words, but once allowed in, it can feel like you’ve been given a glimpse of the divine. It can be a beautiful thing, but for me, learning it didn’t come easily. Or all at once.
For years before 2011, my body spoke to me in a language called pain. Fatigue. It said slow down, stop, you’re not getting any better. And for years I downplayed, dismissed, and sometimes outright denied to myself that there was a real problem. As things were falling apart inside, I strived to hang on to all the attachments that the illness slowly started to take. I thought as long as I could keep my job, it lessened somehow the reality of having a disease. It diminished it to an anecdote. I had it, but it didn’t have me. As such, surrender came in pieces. Determined as I was, I couldn’t bare the tension of working, being sick and trying to get better. Convincing myself I could multi-task, I was actually just failing at three at once. Hah. Something had to give. I
will never forget that conversation in Andrews office, me holding back the tears as best as I could, saying I didn’t want to go. I had done my best, but my body just couldn’t take it anymore. Neither of us wanted me to worsen. We hugged and said that thing people say even when they know it’s not true. “I’ll see you again soon!” Don’t worry, I told him. But he did look worried, something in his eyes. I punched my time card for the last time–yes the 100-year-old gallery still used time cards. On that drive home across the bridge to my parents house, I cried the whole way. I felt more lost and afraid than I ever had.
That was the end and the beginning. The next two years would be the hardest–the most brutal on every level. I resisted. Lied to myself. Conceived of ways I could return to the path I was on before getting sick. It felt like someone had sat on the remote control of my life and accidentally pressed the pause button. There was an incessant feeling that wherever I was, there was somewhere else I should be. Not this. Not here. I was sick when I should be well. In California when I should be home. At home on a weekday when I should be at work. I never had an inkling that Yep, this is right where I’m supposed to be. I thought if only I could survive this “wrinkle in time” I could resume the life I’d had before. Just like that. As if time moved in any direction but forward.
I’ve had six years to adapt to the life I would feel proud to call my own again, but it certainly wasn’t the one designed by my hand. I think the final straw that led to surrender was simply a matter of being too tired to fight. Somewhere after year 2, I let go of the last of my life plans–fed them into a shredder and watched as little paper ribbons emerged. Surrender. One part complete fear, one part total release. In hindsight it’s clear that the fear was mostly ego-driven. If I wasn’t designing my own outcomes, who or what was? And by the way, who could know the path I should take better than me? (Laughable now) But the release had one up on the fear. It meant making room for the life that was waiting for me to finally begin. In fact I was the hindrance. I was the one sitting on the remote.
After six years in the game, my life doesn’t feel foreign or as though it should be another way. It feels more like a perfectly worn-in pair of jeans. The ones where the denim is at that awesome level of soft and is tight and skinny in all the right places. I think jeans are one of the most personable clothing items. Have you ever tried someone else’s jeans on before? It feels like trying on clown pants. In the beginning, that’s what being home on a Tuesday at 2 pm felt like. Now that’s just business as usual.
I now struggle with the idea that if I surrender too much, if the circumstances of my life simply feel normal, I’ll become complacent. I’ll forget that it shouldn’t be this way. I’m not supposed to be sick all the time and spend vacations half conscious on the couch. But it’s become the norm. I don’t want to become so desensitized that a bookshelf filled entirely of my prescription bottles doesn’t shock me at all. And I don’t want to lose the fire in me to change the things we need to change, as a community that fought long and hard before I ever came around. I want to embrace and be happy where I am, but I want to be proactive. And so I’m trying to find the balance between enjoying the present while also remembering that there’s an injustice at play here, something that needs fixing. And I know that I have to try and help fix it.
I could easily be the one too sick to fight, just like millions of others with MECFS are, but I’d have no doubt that the warriors in the community would continue to work until it’s done. The baton might change hands but the balance remains. And just because I’ve tapped into joy and surrender and gratitude where I am, doesn’t change the fact that I am part of a community, one that has fought for this cause for decades. I owe it to them to do what I can. I am constantly seeking a way to advocate for what I know is right, but remain distant enough that my ego doesn’t get drawn in to the wrong efforts. It happens all too easily.
A very strange thing that might be hard to believe– I don’t actually love talking about being sick. Gasp. And I feel that I’m kind of terrible at the whole advocacy thing. Luckily online my awkwardness doesn’t shine through as much, but it’s still a struggle for me to solicit people to help, even though I believe 101% in the cause and am certain I’ll continue petitioning and fighting for it until the deed is done. But how can that be?How can it be true that I don’t like talking about being sick and yet I have an entire blog devoted to very subject: “Life through the sick lens”?
I’ve toyed a lot with these opposing truths and tried to understand how I could want both. And I think the answer is somewhere near this: By speaking honestly about the experience, particularly the chronic illness experience, which I found to be largely misunderstood, and by foregoing the typical polite response or social etiquette and supplementing it instead with what is true, I open up a space for us to move closer together instead of further apart. By writing about a topic that can be very isolating, I’m attempting to give people a chance to understand, instead of blindsiding them with “Well I live in mismatched pjs and I haven’t showered for a week because I’m too weak to shampoo my own hair and oh, you’ll never understand!” (Runs out of coffee shop. Trips. Continues running.)
Contrary to what I hear people say all the time, the world is actually full of good people, and most of them aren’t trying to hurt you. 99% of the ones I know are exceptional, and they are sympathetic and helpful about my situation when given the chance to be. But you have to be willing to reach out, which means you have to expose a need, and sometimes that’s the hardest part of all. I only know if I keep too tight a lid on my own unusual experience, hellbent that the world will just never get it, I will most likely be right, but it won’t be the worlds fault.
So, life continues, seeking out the peace in the middle. Waiting patiently for the right answer to arise in so many scenarios. And holding the tension between opposites long enough to tap into something deeper and wiser than I ever could be. It’s not the easiest thing, but it sure beats pulling my hair out between Crest Multi Care and Colgate Total at midnight in Walgreens. The point is to be still and patient, wait for the mud to settle, and allow enough time for my own transcendent third to arise.
Health, Happiness, Settling Mud