The Power of Illness

an essay on life in empire

What helps us heal?

Or, what helps us live our best life even if we have trouble healing?

Or…how can we change our definition of healing?

***

For years, I’ve struggled with my health. I’ve worked out. I’ve eaten well. I’ve meditated. I’ve accomplished a lot, too.

For years, I had chronic pain and fatigue. I got better.

For years, I traveled one to three times per month for work. I thought that was what made me tired, and that actually –via diet, exercise, meditation– I was doing quite well considering. I was. Really well.

Then I burned out.

Then I stabilized again, but still got mild illnesses too often and was tired a lot. My doctor said I was fine. It affected my relationships, this tiredness. And my activism. And my ability to be who I wanted to be.

Turned out my doctor was wrong. I wasn’t fine.

***

But that isn’t what this essay is about. This essay is about learning to work and live in the midst of illness. This essay is about learning to listen to our bodies rather than fight them all the time. This essay is about, yes, working well and having ambitions, but also, about slowing down inside. Listening more. Gazing out of windows. Praying. Reading. Going for walks.

Enjoying simpler things.

And then doing whatever work it is within our capacity to do.

***

I’m currently writing Book 5 of a nine book series and loving it. This series came to be because I was too sick to work for some of last year. Exhausted, sick, and in a terrible brain fog, all I could do work-wise was lie on the couch, laptop on my abdomen, and watch videos of other successful writers talking about their strategies. It was still work, because I was gleaning inspiration. But it certainly was not production.

And this world values production, doesn’t it?

Then, in the midst of a few short videos, some thoughts emerged from the fog:

I could plan an urban fantasy series the way romance authors planned their series. I could write a nine book series about a coven, with each member getting their own book, just as they do in romances. That way, they’d be linked, but stand alone. And I could make sure each book had some sort of relationship arc, even though they weren’t going to be romances. And…

I could call it The Witches of Portland.

I made notes on the series. The next day, still on the couch, I made notes on each character. These notes weren’t much, but gave me reference points so that when the fog lifted enough for me to write again, I had a place to begin.

***

If I hadn’t listened to my body and lain on that couch, and hadn’t also simultaneously done the only work I was able to do, I don’t think I would be writing this series right now.

It was working with my illness instead of against it that gave me the gift of The Witches of Portland.

I learned to distinguish between tiredness and exhaustion and figured out when I needed to try to write and when I needed to go back to bed.

The phrase “diminishing returns” became an ally in navigating my work load. When was trying to push on helpful? When was pushing on leading to diminishing returns?

I found that if I stopped on the “diminishing returns” afternoons –or even days– the following day was actually productive, be it wordcount wise, or business-study wise, or in seeing clients.

I also had to rethink my activism. But that’s another branch of this topic.

***

I’m fortunate enough to work for myself and have control of my own schedule. But I still need to work. There’s still writing to do, a few remaining clients to meet with, and a business to run. There are still partners and friends to spend time with (and sometimes to break dates with).

This brings me back to the questions that began this essay. Especially this one: what helps us live our best life even if we have trouble healing?

For those of you reading who work for other people, or have children making demands on your attention and time, how would you answer that question?

Can you even entertain that question, or any of the other questions at the start of this essay?

***

For me, the answer to these questions is to listen.

I’m listening to my ambitions and desires along with listening to my energy levels, my emotions, my body, and my mind. Listening to my tendency to push too hard. Listening to what lessons I’ve internalized from the overculture. Listening to what I love. What I value.

And noticing whether or not I treat myself in the same way as other things I actually value.

If I want a world where people are taken care of, and don’t have to produce in order to feel loved or held in esteem, than shouldn’t I apply that to myself?

Sometimes I need to work on dismantling my inner puritanical capitalist workhorse. I need to soften and pay better attention to what is, rather than focusing on what I think ought to be. I used to tell my students, “We must do magic from where we are, not from where we think we ought to be.”

So this is my magic now, paying attention to my sickness and my health, and bringing that into my creative process, rather than seeing it as a stumbling block to my work.

***

The power of illness is that it shapes us. When we are open, we can guide that shaping process and be guided by it, as well.

The other key is not giving up. Oh, sometimes we need to give in. Or give over. But giving up? I never have. I’ve always found a way even at my most imbalanced or exhausted–though it might take a day or three– to return to center, to breathe, to sink, to open, and to listen once again.

I’m not saying this never feels like a struggle. That I’m never frustrated or impatient. Impatience is my main impulse, as a matter of fact. But I’ve learned to work with that, as well.

Would I rather feel healthy and fit and at the top of my game all the time? I must admit that I would. But, as that isn’t currently possible, I’m going to keep showing up to my life as it is, to the best of my ability.

Besides, despite my ambitions and desires, I know enough to suspect that the wish to be “at the top of my game” is simply another vestige of an oppressive system bent on grinding us into dust.

I don’t want to be ground into dust. I want to expand my capacity to truly live.

So I’ll keep listening. I’ll keep resting. I’ll keep enjoying myself.

And I’ll keep thinking, dreaming, and working.

I hope you do, too.

Here’s wishing you health, in as many different forms as it comes.


This is reader funded writing. I thank all of my Patreon supporters for making it possible for me to provide one free essay and short story every month. Most of this writing would not exist without these people. They all rock.

Want to join my Patreon crew? You get advance copies of essays and stories before they hit the web, plus a chance for free books once or so a year.