body image chronically ill

Reader G e-mailed me with this question:

What happens when your body has “betrayed” you by being ill? I really struggle with this. I often read that you should love your body for what it is able to DO rather than what it looks like (a sentiment that I agree with) but how can you do this if you are chronically unwell? I suspect that the answer lies in cultivating kindness towards oneself, whatever the situation, but it’s sooooo difficult.

I have no easy answers for this one. In fact, I’m not sure I have any answers at all. I spent most of my life being extremely, robustly, enviably healthy, but over the past few years I’ve dealt with some alarming and frustrating health scares, and been diagnosed with several incurable chronic ailments. And I’m angry. I’m angry that no one can help, that no one seems terribly interested in helping, that I’ve basically been told to suck it up and cope with these things that have diminished my overall quality of life, screwed with some of my most important relationships, and made me feel weak, damaged, and exhausted.

And none of what I’m dealing with is life-threatening, none of it impedes my social functioning. In fact, you’d never know I’m dealing with any health-related unless I told you. And if I’m this angry and frustrated, I can’t even begin to imagine how angry and frustrated those of you dealing with more invasive, painful, and life-altering illnesses must feel.

But without the will to cultivate gratitude, we may all lose sight of hope. And hope can sometimes make poor health easier to bear. Since illness can take infinite forms, it’ll be tough to generalize, but here are a few ideas for how to stay grateful for your body during times of sickness.

Define your own brand of pampering, and indulge

Illness can make hair and nails brittle, can make clothing uncomfortable, can make sunlight feel like daggers. But hopefully there are a few bits left unscathed. Focus on those, and pamper away. If your nails are sound and your hand steady, buy a rainbow of polishes and practice your manicure skills. If your hair is healthy and strong, do something fabulous with it: A daring cut, a new color, experiments with braids and updos. If you can deal with heat and water, splurge on delicious-smelling salts and schedule three baths per week. Facials, massages, professional makeovers … none of these things should be considered frivolous or wasteful if you’re in a battle with your body and just need something to make you feel happily human again.

Play with your senses

Try concocting your very own perfume … or just begin collecting scents that make you smile. Buy an enormous cashmere throw, and take it everywhere with you like a security blanket. Spend a week cooking only spicy foods. Then sweet, salty, tangy and so on until you’ve got a whole new group of fabulous recipes in your arsenal. Teach yourself to recognize morning birdsong, record the sounds of your partner or roommate or best friend sleeping, sign up for Pandora and start building your own radio station. Paint or draw or make collages, rent only movies that are visual feasts (Amelie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Marie Antoinette, Gone with the Wind, Across the Universe), rearrange your closet so that everything is grouped by color. Find a way to let your senses feast.

Focus on your strengths

This one may be a bit of a stretch – especially if your illness is debilitating across several areas of function – but it’s a practice that I believe ALL people can engage. Being sick means that you may not have full range of motion, your energy may be diminished, you may look different and feel strange or badly much of the time. But as tempting as it is to focus on those negatives, there are always things your body can still do, and do well. Can you still knit? Sing? Cook? Write kick-ass haiku? Debate with your dad or best friend? Even if you can’t bike to work or lift weights, can you still do pilates or yoga? Even if you can’t tolerate wool or linen on your skin, can you still wear supple silks? Do what you can to focus on your strengths, no matter how weakened you may feel.

Again, these may not work for everyone living with illness, and I acknowledge that gratitude can be hard to muster when you’re facing down a long haul. But hopefully some of these suggestions will help some of you.

Image courtesy Alex Proimos.

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