My mother has always told me its okay to not be okay. If you need a day, take a day. If you’re tired, rest. Take each moment as they come. Accept the present. Only lately do I begin to understand what she meant.
Five months ago, I graduated college with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Leadership Communication. After six years of transferring schools and switching majors, I walked across the graduation stage holding gratitude and excitement for the future in my heart. What, at the time, seemed like a never ending stream of professors, textbooks and assignments, was finally finished. My plan was to complete a three week course to get my real estate license, take the Colorado Springs market by storm, and hastily pay off my mounting student debt before doing what I, “really wanted to do.”
On January 1st, I joyfully celebrated in the expectant new year. And on January 2nd, I answered my phone to devastating medical news.
My doctor called me to let me know that I needed to go see a neurosurgeon as soon as I could as I had a condition called a Type 1 Chiari Malformation. I was told that I needed to have big-deal brain surgery or I could end up paralyzed. The pain, dizziness, nausea, and difficulty with balance and coordination that I had felt increasingly for years was due to my brain being compressed at the back of my skull. However, when I arrived at the hospital weeks later to have my skull cut into and fixed, I was told that they no longer believed it to be the problem. I bounced from doctor to doctor trying to find what was wrong with me. Symptoms continued to worsen to the point where I often spend many hours in bed most days due to pain, dizziness and nausea, and no longer am able to work consistently. We continue to search for answers.
The time at which my world was supposed to start opening up is the moment at which it began closing down. I’d spend many hours sitting in sadness, anger or frustration for life that felt stolen from me. I tried making the problem leave by sheer will power – telling myself I wouldn’t get sick today, my head wouldn’t hurt, and I would have a thoroughly functional day. When that would fail and I’d end up in bed, I’d become even more frustrated and withdrawn. Feeling useless, I’d cry or sleep or stare at the wall. I couldn’t “fix” it.
I began to notice, however, that when I didn’t try to mentally deny reality and push through when I knew I shouldn’t, that I was at peace, and perhaps even less in pain. It didn’t matter if it was a good day or a bad day, in pain or out of pain, if I was in bed from dawn to dusk, or if I could work here and there; I was at peace. I began reading a book that supported what I was experiencing. It suggested that when we try to avoid, deny, or push away pain, be it mental or physical, we increase suffering. Avoidance and denial take many different forms. For some, it may look like avoiding social situations due to anxiety. But by doing that, they invite loneliness, isolation, and perhaps feelings of being unwanted. For others, maybe it looks like refusing to think about some significant trauma. They may avoid the negative memory of it for quite awhile, but the damage begins to seep into other areas of their life, affecting relationships, jobs, mental health, and more. And for me, at least in this one area of my life, it looked like trying to will away my pain.
Attempting to fight away my physical pain had caused me further discomfort by inviting in bitterness, feelings of worthlessness, anger and frustration. But then I began accepting it, in moments, by little bits and pieces. I wasn’t accepting it like, “This is fine, its not really bad, I’m not going to try to fix it anymore, I give up,” but accepting it like, “I hurt right at this moment, and that’s okay. It won’t be forever.” It became easier to breathe. As my frustration decreased, the severity of my pain did as well. Though it by no means left, it became perhaps more bearable, because I wasn’t expending extra energy being angry or frustrated or bitter. By accepting the fact that my pain was real and did exist for the moment, I stopped causing myself additional pain by denying it.
I have miles and miles to go in practicing this idea in my own life. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still cry and stare at the wall from time to time. There are many mountains left to climb when it comes to my health, but I hope to learn how to breathe easier throughout it all. Though there is much of the journey left, this kind of “acceptance” has begun to make a real difference in the way I think and feel and breathe, in the moments I remember to invite it in.