Illness & Imperfection: Embracing Life’s Messiness

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“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people, it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”.

Anne Lamott

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve had to be. Illness, especially chronic illness, tends to put a spanner in the works of any life plans we may have concocted. It is, in reality, both an unhelpful & maladaptive personality trait to have, so why do we have it? Fear.

Perfectionism is fear tied up in a (neat) pretty little bow. It tricks us into feeling like we have some assemblance of control over our lives as we fumble around on this beautiful blue spinning rock called Earth. Brene Brown describes perfectionism wonderfully as armour against vulnerability. I get that, I really do, if there is one emotion I am very familiar with it is that of feeling vulnerable but life is much more pleasant without the ‘P’ word.

I was supposed to have a successful career as an occupational therapist after university, grow my family, care for my daughter, learn to drive, hike long trails & forge new paths through the adventure of life. It seems however that the universe wasn’t altogether aware of what was supposed to be happening.

The lack of control & role loss, the shame of being unproductive & the uncertainty I experienced with ill health was incredibly distressing. However I wonder now looking back, how many days did I lose to worry & stress? How many precious moments did I miss because I was fretting over the future? My life was far from perfect after all. Yet I made the classic move of what buddhists call shooting myself with a second arrow, over & over again. Buddha described how anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the actual negative event, which can cause pain. The second arrow is the suffering – or our reaction to the negative event & the way we emotionally respond. No doubt the moments I missed & energy I expended raging against my imperfect life are too numerous to count, I knew no better but as the wonderful Tara Brach writes, “when we learn to relax with imperfection we no longer lose our life to moments of fear”.

For my own sake & for the sake & health of my family I  had to learn to let go of the shoulds & supposed to’s. Trees & gardens are a wonderful lesson in this. Each autumn they shed so easily that which no longer serves them, making room for fresh new growth in the spring. I began to realise that my mind was like a garden & I had the power to grow resentment, anger & fear or I could plant seeds of compassion, love, joy, courage & hope.

It wasn’t & isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward. I often falter & weed pulling is a daily habit but I’m aware I have choice. That’s the point. The sweet spot. Whether or not I always make a kind choice is another matter. Eventually though I managed to let go of the feeling of shame that I carried around with me. Slowly replacing it with the belief that I was enough, am enough. None of us are defined by our illnesses or misfortunes.

There is a poem that I love by Padraig O’Tuama it reads, “the place of pain is the place of survival (and sometimes barely that)”.  In order to survive well we need to nurture ourselves with whatever gives our life meaning. Nature, music & friendship are some of the things of joy & value in my life; the things that help stitch me back together when I’m tattered & torn. In moments of struggle I like to step outside if I am able to. The Talmud has a lovely saying, “every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it whispering grow, grow, grow!”  – the whole world sacred ground & when I can sit & let the sun explore my face, I let go a little. When I can be still & open to my reality, I let go a little. Each moment an act of holiness as I welcome what is.

I still hope that pain will one day be less of a companion in my life but I’m learning to take the pain with me, into whatever future may unfold, one imperfect step at a time.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.

The outdoors – medicine for the mind

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In my mind’s eye I see an image of the sun’s rays rising to meet a masiff. Hungy shafts of dawn-light falling on granite blades of mountain and moss. I too am eager to set foot and boot and bone on it and in it, to set my senses on nature. It is in nature that I feel truly hushed, seen, found and grounded.

Like the solid timeless rocks of mountainscapes which resist erosion so well, so too can we, by being in nature, resist the ever increasing pace and force of modern life which so often seems to leave us wanting & for those with a disability frequently discriminates against. Yet an illness or disability does not have to separate us from our inheritance.

Walking is my axis mundi. There is a freedom on the trail, labels disappear and job titles are tossed aside, we are hikers, explorers, adventurers, equals. I haven’t always being physically able to take part in hiking however. Between the age of 28 and 35 I spent most of my days in my home crippled by excruciating pain from which I was told I would never recover. The 500 pain killers I took each month only served to give me a window of perhaps two hours a day with which to spend time with my young daughter and husband. There was no pressure to ‘make the most of it’, honestly!

So what to do in times like this ? Well sometimes when we are unable to venture out into nature we need to bring the outdoors indoors. I started to live vicariously through artists, writers and musicians. Some would argue, as the narrator in Proust’s, ‘the prisoner’ espoused that, “the only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others and to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds”. I don’t completely agree with this but it did temporarily satiate the desire to escape my restrictive reality.

However when, as often happened, pain levels were too high to read or even listen to an audio book I found simply gazing out of my bedroom window onto the ever changing scene of woodland and wildlife brought me to a place of momentary peace and restoration.

Fast forward a few years and with some luck, lots of hard work and perseverance I healed from that illness and spent 3 lovely years walking locally, wild swimming and easing back into the world. Yet after planning (to attempt) a long distance hike I’ve found myself again diagnosed with another painful chronic illness – none of us has a monopoly on health I angrily told myself. So now I find I’m falling back on my occupational therapy training (not to be confused with occupational health) adapting activities, grading, finding a way to incorporate my meaningful occupation of walking in nature, into my current circumstance and with some mindfulness, creativity and patience, like John Muir counselled, I am able to make sure a few of the paths I take in life are dirt.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.