Many years ago, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. The only word I could use to describe how I felt, at the time, was: betrayed. I’d totally bought into the message that prevention was better than a cure, and I’d proactively done what I thought was a basically good job of trying to care for my body. Yet, there there I was.
In the two years following the diagnosis, how to heal my body was something of a singular obsession. I bounced back and forth between Western and Eastern and alternative; I gagged down bone broth and probiotics to heal my gut and when that failed I’d drink green juice to my heart’s abandon and lust after gluten.
I could feel that with the diagnosis and struggle to find a workable treatment, and the exhaustion and low-grade “meh” that didn’t seem to want to leave, my identity had changed. I now thought of myself as “a sick person.” Managing how I felt had come to define me, in some way.
I can truly say that what tipped everything in a different direction was a fortuitous dinner.
I was at a conference and my husband and I grabbed dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. After I shared about all of the health stuff that had come up, she said something that changed my life: “Well, fuck that diagnosis.”
When she said it, I felt something go through my body in that moment. Power. Groundedness. The opening of a doorway into a completely new way of thinking, a totally different paradigm, for what I was facing. She was the first and only person who hadn’t treated the situation like a shrug, Oh well, whaddyagonnado, here’s your sentence, this disease is just the way it is…followed by offering well-meaning advice.
Instead, she was treating the diagnosis as something that I didn’t just have to roll over and tolerate.
Inspired after that dinner, I began making my list of things I wanted to do with my body—things that had seemed impossible, before.
Dialogue With The Body
A practice where you dialogue with your body can be…revolutionary. I began a dialogue with my body, on a regular basis. In quiet, meditative contemplation I asked my body what it needed me to know (mostly, it said that it was tired of worrying all of the time and that I needed to have more fun).
Since “dialogue” is a two-way conversation, I also spoke. I informed my body that we—the internal “me” and my body—were going to beat this.
“Look, here’s what we’re going to do,” I informed my body, “We’re going to train for triathlon. I don’t care if we limp over that finish line. We are GOING to do this. This is how this is going to go.”
Heaving myself up a hill on my bike, I’d want to give up. “Listen up: this is how this is going to go. We’re going to finish this workout.”
Heading out for a run when I felt like heading for the couch? “Listen up: this is how this is going to go. We’re going to get your ass out there for a run.”
I’d feel resistant to getting in a swim workout (my least favorite triathlon discipline), but it would come back to the same thing: “Listen up: this swim is happening. Now.”
The voice was less drill sergeant, and more matter-of-fact: here’s what’s happening, there is no wiggle room, so let’s try less complaining (since that’s not fun, anyway) and more finishing. All that matters is that you finish. You’ve got this.
Every single time I finished a workout, I would feel a rush of pride. I hadn’t wanted to do this, but I’d done it! Then, too, I’d dialogue with my body, telling it/us/me (this is weird, I know) how proud I was, how awesome we were for hanging in there despite feeling tired, how much chutzpah it takes to keep showing up for classes where you are, quite literally, the worst-performing person in the class. One triathlon I completed, I was the very last person in my age group who emerged from the water (in my defense, I started my swim wave late when I got held up in the porta-potty lines).
It wasn’t about being the best. It was about doing what I’d set out to do, and not letting anything stop me.
Who Says So?
Years later, I was being interviewed on a podcast and my illness came up. The podcast host started talking about the importance of acceptance when it comes to illness. I’m into acceptance, but I added what feels true for me:
“Actually, I totally think that I’m going to heal from this, someday.”
Even though no doctor has said this to me, and the medical books say it is impossible and that there’s no clinical indication of healing, I no longer feel like “a sick person.”
In fact, I’m really clear that I’m healthy as hell, and I’m able to do far more things with my body than someone who is technically, clinically “healthier” than I am.
For the most part, the decision that I was more committed to doggedly pursuing what I wanted and the repeated practice of saying to myself, “Look, this is how this is going to go: we aren’t letting anything stop us” has, for all intents and purposes, worked.
By “worked,” I don’t mean spiritual bypass or healing myself magically. I suppose that if you ran my bloodwork, something I rarely bother to do anymore, all of the same stuff might still be there.
I just mean that I put very little attention on feeling ill and that when I do feel ill, most of my attention is on how I’m still going to do the things that bring me joy.
I’m ferocious about it, in the best way. What do I want to do with my one, precious life? What’s important to me? Why will it matter to me? How do I want to feel? What do I have control over—how can I do more of that?
And when fear comes up, I utilize the practices that I talk about in The Courage Habit—I really do stop to do things like access the body or reach out to my community—but I’m very clear that the question, “Who says so?” is answered by…me.
Who says so? I say so. Like, I’m saying how this is going to go, with my body. I have never felt anything truer in my life than this. Someday, I’m going to wake up and there just won’t be any illness, anymore. I don’t know how. I just know that it will happen.
I just know that it’s already happening.
Dialogue With the Body: Thank You
When I dialogue with the body now, my body thanks me.
It thanks me for listening, and for integrating more play and self-care into my life. It thanks me for dropping the hustle to be the best at anything. It thanks me for the sunshine and the bike rides through mustard fields in Sonoma County. It thanks me for the lower resting heart rate. It thanks me for time spent on a zafu, watching my in-breath and out-breath. It thanks me for a greatly expanded capacity to help, to volunteer, to give, to hold space, to be of service.
And once when I went into a dialogue with the body, my body thanked me for something new: for not giving up on it, and for not making it the subject of my scorn.
Viewing my body with betrayal was positioning my body as the enemy. “You betrayed me,” I was saying to my body, when in fact it had done nothing of the sort.
Today, I wholly understand that my body is my friend, and has only ever responded to the illness it has faced by trying to do one thing, at all costs: make sure that we survive.
I am something of an existentialist. I realize that someday, we all die. Someday, everyone’s bodies will give out in response to injury or illness or trauma. That’s the natural order of things. Because that’s the natural order of things, I feel acutely aware every day of the choice before me to decide who I want to be and how I want to live.
Instead of seeing my body as a liability, I now see it as an asset, a vehicle to experience as much joy as can be packed into this one human life, this one existence. I treat it as well as I know how, and I listen as best I can. I have chosen to befriend it, to love it, to be its champion even if it—like me—is imperfect.