Appreciating Illness

Photo by Tracy Dekalb

As soon as the holiday break started, I got sick. This is not unusual for me. I remember this happening when I was in college. I would come home after finals and sleep seemingly endlessly for days before I felt fully recovered. Even now that I have a job that I love and don’t have the stress of finals, I still experience a similar letdown in my body when I get vacation time.

I am impatient with myself when I get sick. Over the holiday break, I insisted that I keep exercising and pushing myself. The result was that my sickness lasted for most of the break and, although I finally started to recover just before the new year, the cold came back in full force my first full week back at work.

The hardest part for me about being sick is my internal voice beating myself up for not doing more. Some of my reaction to being sick is related to how I view myself. I pride myself in how busy I am and how much I can get done. When I am not busy and checking things off my to-do list, I feel guilty and worried that others will be disappointed in me.

Another thing about being sick is that I feel less capable. It scares me when I can’t remember words and names, which honestly has been something I have struggled with for years. However, when I am sick, I feel inadequate and worried.

I also have the expectation that if I am purpose-driven and taking care of myself, I shouldn’t get sick at all. This belief is silly since sickness is just part of being alive. It means that I have been viewing being sick as a sign of failure of my body and spirit.

So instead of fighting being sick like I did over the break, this week I decided to be very intentional about how I responded. I tried to listen to my body. I didn’t exercise all week. I slept more, read a couple of novels, and did very little extra. I also spent a lot of effort to understand and rewrite my stories about sickness.

As I took the time to really unpack my thinking, I realized that many of my negative feelings about illness come from watching my mother succumb to MS. When my mother was diagnosed with the disease in her mid-forties, she went to bed for the next seventeen years. My Type-A mother who ran our neighborhood changed completely and was unrecognizable to me and my sisters. I was so angry with her for giving in that I have been fiercely fighting any sign of illness in myself. What I realize now is that it was her reaction to the disease, not the disease itself that was so distressing to me as her daughter.

That insight alone was worth a lingering cold.

I am feeling better and am intensely appreciative of the miraculous ability of my body to heal itself. The next time that I get sick, I hope to remember that the downtime will help my body repair itself and that my reaction to the illness will be an opportunity to better understand and become the person I aspire to be.

What has been your experience with illness?  How has it contributed to your growth as a person and leader?

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