I’ve been having a certain sense of well-being for the past few weeks – I can be quite superstitious so I tend to refrain from making any positive statements in case I jinx myself. It just seems like every time I think I am doing well I inevitably suffer a relapse. Superstition aside I think it does make sense: I tend to over-exert myself once I feel well again because I am also trying to compensate for all that lost time, and also it is just part of a long-term chronic illness to ebb and flow.
It is funny how I don’t usually think twice when writing about the bad parts but I am actually afraid to write about the good parts. This is quite a common self-sabotaging behaviour, sometimes it is just better to get used to being in despair all the time than to actually hold hope in your hands and have it cruelly snatched away.
I was writing my morning pages today when I started thinking about how much and how long it took for me to get to this point. Currently I am:
- taking two 30-minute walks each day with my partner, once in the morning and once in the evening
- cooking both meals (I only eat two meals because I intermittently fast 16/8) for myself and an additional separate meal for my partner
- washing dishes almost as soon as I finish my meals. They used to lie in the sink until the very last minute
- restricting screen time to less than 4 hours a day. I don’t know if this sounds a lot to you but it was the “norm” for me to look at my screen for more than 8 hours a day
- doing a thorough spring cleaning for the lunar new year, however I am chunking it into smaller tasks each day instead of an intensive 2-3 day clean
I don’t know if these things sound like a big deal but they are for me. Because I spent a long time of the past 7 years either unable to do much or not wanting to do much. Having a chronic illness means I can’t really tell which part of it is not being able and which part of it is not wanting to. How much of wanting to do things is affected on a biological level? Also I expended so much energy just trying to recover that I just didn’t have much left to do seemingly ordinary things. Back then, even taking a walk to the nearby mall felt exhausting.
I thought it would be interesting to map out a rough timeline of my illness and recovery:
- 2015: start of severe dry eyes and migraines. Saw an eye specialist once I moved back to Singapore: oil glands and tear ducts in my eyes were not working. According to them there is no cure and I would have to put eye drops for the rest of my life. I also started seeing my family’s traditional chinese medicine (TCM) physician.
- 2016: symptoms started improving with regular TCM. I could cry again? At this point I was probably still hopeful of making a full recovery.
- 2017 – 2020: Ups and downs. Lots of migraines. Some good months, some terrible ones. In and out of existential depression. There is a lot of sadness and tortured thinking in my journal entries during this time. In 2017 I seemed to start accepting that this is going to part of the rest of my life.
- 2019-now: During these years I gradually become better at regulating my emotions. I have less episodes of meltdown. I work harder at sustaining emotional stability intrinsically, gradually detaching myself from consciously seeking external validation.
- 2021-now: Some time in 2021 I became okay with nothing in particular to look forward to, and because of that the space to find enrichment in my ordinary, boring life gradually opened up:
…realising that in this moment I am really okay sitting with the emptiness of my life. There are no highs, nothing really to look forward to, especially now with the covid situation I can’t even look forward to a trip overseas. There’s no career advancement, no new job, nothing. Just zero. And I’m okay with the zero.– okay with zero from dayone
There is probably a lot happening between 2017 to 2021 but I don’t want to go into an in-depth analysis of my journal entries now. The point I want to make in this post is that something really ordinary to some people can be really almost magical for me. There is so much work that has to go on to be able to enjoy something as innocuous as cooking. So much clearing of toxic beliefs and behavioural patterns, so much letting go, so much slowing down, so much unconditioning, so much of training myself to gain some control of how I perceive time: whether it is just huge blocks of hours blindly zooming by or being capable of noticing a very rich little moment happening in the present.
Back in 2015/2016 I read a book on burnout and the author said she took 8 years to recover. At that point in my life I was horrified at the possibility of enduring 8 years. This year I will be reaching my 7th year. Probably in many of the past 7 years it probably looked like nothing was happening on the surface. But there was just so much psychological processing, so much of trying to make sense of things, so much grief, and so much anger.
I’m not naive to think I am on the mend, but what buddhist meditation has taught me is that we have to look at the lengthening gaps between the noise. What buddhism teaches (according to my interpretation) is that we cannot expect our mind to become fully silent, but we can train the gaps of silence to become longer. So for me, I no longer expect full recovery, neither am I expecting actual improvement in terms of the total time of illness I have to endure, but rather I want to be better at living during those times I am well, or better at healing/resting during those times I am unwell. I am learning to cherish the gaps.
It took me probably 6 long years to get to a point when I started to have an interest in life. Prior to that I was constantly wondering about the point of my existence. I don’t what is it like for other people but for me I was so damaged that I could not feel life until I reached a certain threshold of healing.
My own journey makes me think about other people who are in similar or worse shoes. I know many people are not afforded the time, space and compassionate support that is needed to heal. It just takes so much time and space. I think about how much more alive this world can be if we prioritised healing, or even better, if we were capable of not inflicting damage in the first place.