A wonderful friend sent me a link to a TEDx talk by Dr. Rita Charon. The talk focused on narrative medicine, rephrasing a physician as an absorber of stories. I found the talk, and the speaker herself, fascinating, and have been slowly digesting the various concepts and ideas she touched upon over the past few days. One phrase in particular has been haunting my thoughts.
‘Illness exposes… You’re down to the floor of who you are.’
The minute those words passed her lips, I paused the video, rewound, and listened to them again. Exposed. Such a precise and perfect word choice for something so difficult to grasp.
I’ve heard a lot of people express a similar idea, in different ways. Some speak of feeling part of themselves stripped away. There is a violence to the language – an unwilling and painful loss. I’ve certainly felt that way, used those words. When I am brusquely examined, when I wake up one morning with new pain and spend hours convincing myself to get out of bed. When an old friend averts their eyes. I feel stripped. I feel that something has been taken from me. And it feels violent.
At other times, the word vulnerable springs to mind. Perched on a hospital bed, fidgeting with the thin covering of communal fabric that doesn’t quite reach my knees, sharing personal details with an impersonal stranger, and hoping desperately that they can offer some reassurance. All of my hopes and dreams, my secrets, are laid out in someone else’s hands. There is no privacy.
After thinking about this for a while, I began to wonder what my own illness revealed. Personality quizzes rank high on my list of guilty pleasures, and I couldn’t help but feel a little excited. Perhaps this was an opportunity to learn more about myself.
This week, I stumbled. No, truly, this month I stumbled. This week I crashed. While my strength has been improving overall, this month ushered in a bit of a setback. I was prepared, knowing that no recovery is linear, and did my best to keep focused on my goals despite my body’s reluctance, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a few days of minimally diluted misery this past week.
Overall, however, I was amazed at how easily I integrated the flare into my life. I only spent three of the days completely glued to my couch, the rest I managed to balance with the addition of daily naps, adjusted therapies, precise planning, and sheer perseverance.
I was quite ill. I was in pain, and extremely fatigued. I still am. I had no energy to spare on pretense – I was at the point were I had to bribe myself to get up and make myself food. Or shower. The ideal opportunity to learn more about myself, practically gift-wrapped.
And perhaps I did. Perhaps I was enlightened by examining what I chose to do compared to what I forced myself to do. Maybe the fact that I received surges of energy when faced with the prospect of company, allowing my body to leap off of the couch and hurriedly cleaning either myself or my apartment – maybe that’s a sign that I am externally motivated. Or maybe that’s just human nature. A watered down protective instinct. I really don’t know.
I do know that I was exposed this week. While I was largely successful in keeping my struggle from impeding on my life, it was simply too exhausting to hold all of my barriers in place. So those who saw me this past week, saw me. They heard what I was truly thinking, they experienced my unfiltered self. They heard my fears, my frustrations, and my instinctive reactions to their conversation. I was at my most bare.
But then something special happened. One friend brought over some bath bombs, after I whined about wanting to reward myself after completing the arduous task of living through the day. Another brought me some books from the library and dinner. Yet another picked up some cleaning supplies for me. And I had amazing conversations with all of them, and many others for that matter, talking for hours, leaping through topics with no segues or explicable progressions of thought. And it was wonderful.
Being laid bare sounds terrifying. But when we are faced with our own fragility, our lack of control over our bodies, there is no choice – we are exposed. But sometimes, maybe that’s not so terrible. Maybe it doesn’t always go hand in hand with violence or vulnerability. Maybe sometimes, the removal of pretense and expectations- our metaphorical clothing, can give us a rare opportunity to connect with honesty. Maybe simply being ourselves is not so terrible after all.