I have this image in my mind of poor health: a sallow look, a sullen expression, a bland and sluggish daily experience of life. Perhaps overweight, or underweight. Not active, not happy, riddled with aches and pains. I am not sure where this image comes from but for many of my adult years I have held it up against myself in comparison and said: see? I’m not like that, so I must not be unhealthy. This logic worked for me as it does for many of us. I have always thought of myself as a healthy person. I am not often sick, I rarely have intense pains, and I am a busy, active woman with a family and friends to help me feel supported. I consider myself to be happy much of the time, and engaged with the world around me. I do not fit into that image of poor health; therefore I must not suffer from it. Additionally, I try to be educated about nutrition and what I eat, I try to be active, I try to be aware of my body and its signals. These are all characteristics of a healthy person, I congratulate myself. Recently I was forced to examine these hard-set ideas and was surprised by what I found out.
All of us here in this company have gone through all the same processes as our new patients; in fact, we are all patients as well as employees. When we begin working here we fill out all the same paperwork, check off all those boxes denoting daily symptoms, get our pulses read and our tongues checked. When I was hired I, too, went through this assessment. This was a very new and somewhat anxious process for me; I realized that I had never asked myself these questions, and never had a job where my experience of health fundamentally mattered. So it was with some trepidation that I turned page after page of the New Patient Paperwork, working my pen and struggling to give an honest assessment. I was afraid I would be revealed as a chronically unwell new employee with a flair for the dramatic. And, looking back over the pages I had filled out, I was shocked by what I had written down. The list of complaints was long, the daily aches and pains were numerous, and the overall assessment of my health on paper was not good.
There is a series of emotions one goes through when presented with an idea one is unprepared to accept. For me I was first confused, then uncertain, and ultimately dismissive. The dialogue in my head ran at a mile a minute, pushing against the tide of new knowledge: I was fine, clearly I was a healthy person, I didn’t need to work on all this stuff. And anyway, no one likes a complainer. I mean, everyone has the occasional headache, right? And those terrible menstrual cramps run in my family. It’s nothing to worry about, it is totally normal. So maybe I have constant trouble with my sinuses. And I haven’t slept through the night in years. Fatigue is the normal result of a busy life, and the anxiety, too. And the stress? Point out a single person in our modern world who isn’t struggling to manage their stress. None of this means I am an unhealthy person, it just means I’m living a normal, busy life.
My defensive reaction revealed to me that I have been brainwashed in a way. There is this pervasive tough-it-out attitude in our society, this get-it-done way of moving through our lives. And I understand that impulse to keep moving, that drive to push myself. As one who has a long to-do list and the pressure to succeed balanced precariously on my shoulders, I am terribly accustomed to this way of thinking. There is a psychology to suffering that tells us that maturity accepts discomfort, that responsibility to others is more important than self-care, and that there will be time later on to attend to the crises that arise. But a major shift in that psychology can come from just a small intervention, from a mere moment of receptivity. It is a second in time when the inner defensive dialogue is silent and new information is allowed to penetrate. It comes when we can admit to suffering, when we find the courage to say: I don’t feel good; I am not well.
I came to realize that those “little things” I wrote down are not so little, and that my quality of life has been poor for some time. It took some time for me to fully realize this. It took sleeping through the night and managing emotional stress and breathing well to discover that I didn’t have to move through life in a frantic attempt to be ok. I could be truly, daily joyous and energetic in a sustainable, balanced way.
Recently I was searching online for images to use in a publication I was working on. I had typed in the keyword “wellness” to see what came up. Along with some random photos of weight scales, apples with measuring tape around them, and stethoscopes, most of the images were of people smiling. And there are lots of them. I tried this search on different sites and found the same thing: it seems our society visually recognizes wellness as happiness. And for a group of people that often gets health information a little gummed up, we finally got it right this time. I have seen this at the clinic every day since I came here: being well makes people happy, and happiness encourages wellness. It is a never-ending cycle of symbiosis and expansion and it is available to all of us. The idea here is to foster the things that are good for us, and slowly disengage from that which diminishes. Promoting happiness can be the catalyst for a transition into wellness, smoothing out the wrinkles in our daily challenges, and cooing encouragement when our resolve threatens to fail.
Ultimately, the decision to become healthy is a simple one, a happy one. The steps that follow can be challenging, but the momentum picks up quickly and the rewards will accumulate. Choosing to seek treatment for the “little things” can make such a tremendous difference in your quality of life, chasing away the tolerance we feel for daily pain and the acceptance of unchecked stress responses. Prevention is a powerful tool and it capitalizes on your good choices. In this way and through these choices was can start helping each other to understand that it is foolish to wait for catastrophe to make room in our lives for a health conversation. We can encourage our communities to be healthier by setting an example of the vibrant life we gain as a result of prioritizing health and happiness.
It started for me by choosing to listen to my body’s warnings, and learning to recognize the messages it is sending. It became easier and easier to check in with myself: Am I sleeping well? Do I have enough energy to get through my day? Am I happy? If not, what is the root of my discomfort? I have finally learned that this thinking is not the hallmark of a victim mentality, nor the excuse-making whines of a hypochondriac. I have seen the improvement in my ability to care for others when I myself am well. I know now that if I am ever to be of any use to anyone else, healing must first begin with me.