I remember some years ago the doctor giving me a sick note for the third of fourth time and, for the third of fourth time, I tucked it into my top pocket and went back to work. Looking back on it I’m not sure what help I was expecting if I wouldn’t take her advice, preferring instead to let myself drown. I thought it was strength that I was showing, but it was really the worst kind of weakness.
I’ve had a chest infection recently and it temporarily laid me lower than any illness for as many years as I can remember. Having to cancel my clinic and take time off was much harder than I’d imagined it would be. Clearly there is still some of that misguided definition of strength in me even if, these days, I overpower it more successfully.
There seems to be a pervasive and damaging notion that acknowledging our need for help, rest and recuperation is, in some way, illustrative of something bad.
Is it that we feel unworthy of stopping for a while to take care of ourselves? Do we experience an uncomfortable guilt at the thought of others toiling while we lay in bed with a book? Why are we not precious enough to occasionally be the singular focus of attention?
Self abandonment, in all of its forms, is a perfect storm because it determines that we let go of our own needs when we most need to satisfy them and, in so doing, we confirm our own worthlessness and perpetuate the whole sorry cycle.
If physical illness isn’t enough to stop us then emotional frailty has no chance. The mere admission that we are struggling often seems too much for us to recognise in ourselves let alone share with others. But this forced resilience is the worst kind of vulnerability because it fools no one. Just because you tell yourself that everything is OK it doesn’t make everything OK.
For many of the people I work with it becomes apparent that their most challenging issue is seeing their own needs as self indulgence. It is easier for them to say “yes” to the world and “no” to themselves, and any thought of promoting self interest is dismissed as unthinkably selfish.
After the initial wave of feeling awful had passed I resisted the temptation to get straight back to full speed. I lay in bed for a day or so reading Ali Smith’s rather wonderful novel “Autumn”. I made lists in preparation for Christmas. I slept much more than I am used to. I ate and drank only what I fancied. Most of all I didn’t work at all. I didn’t write this blog, I didn’t fob my clients off with a half baked version of myself, and I didn’t rush back with a self importance which would inaccurately position my absence as some kind of national disaster.
The sick notes I ignored all those years ago were because my excellent GP recognised a level of depression and emotional crisis in me that I wasn’t willing to see in myself. In the end my ignorance cost me much more than it would have had I shown the self care which was ultimately to prove the only positive way out. We don’t have to let ourselves fall that far. All it takes is a faster recognition that we are at our best for everyone else when we truly care for ourselves first.