I’ve had the good fortune to be largely bed-bound the last couple of days, snowed in by one of the chronic sinus infections that seems to be a gift of my aging.
I haven’t usually been able to accept this condition as a “gift.” Historically, I’m a rotten patient. There’s something about the concept of being “unwell” that pushes on a painful node deep inside me, the sense that there is in fact something fundamentally wrong with me, something broken and unfixable.
But that’s not how I actually feel anymore. Don’t get me wrong; I’d rather not be sick. When I’m stuck in bed I tend to think about all the chores and projects and tasks I somehow didn’t finish when I was well. And I feel angry that my body has let me down, or that I’ve let it down (too much coffee, not enough sleep, should have washed hands more).
Now, finding myself once again in the throes of bodily dis-ease, I could see that this sickness—just like all the illnesses that had gamboled through my body, some laying me low for weeks, others stealing in and out like timid houseguests—was an invitation into some deeper way of being in my body and in my life. It was asking me for a different understanding: If being sick wasn’t a punishment, or a judgement on my physical and psychic fragility, what was it for?
For one, being “sick” and “well” feel more and more arbitrary to me. What if we’re always both sick and well? After all, in the “natural world”—as if we aren’t a part of it—much of life can be defined as a constant balancing act between different bacteria and organisms. Some—like those that ferment cabbage into sauerkraut or grapes to wine—we call “good.” Others, like the campylobacter that last year took my wife into a netherworld of pain, we call “bad.”
But we don’t live in a sterile environment, nor are we one ourselves. The pathogens that make us ill are in abundance, all around us and inside us, too; we’re never completely free of them, nor would we want to be. What’s more, the cellular precursors to serious illness—some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, for instance—are already present in all our bodies, waiting to spring into action. But that doesn’t guarantee they actually will.
The more I attune to this perspective, the more I recognize the little gusts of fragility that pass through me every moment. These tiny messages are happening all the time, and while they’re often a reminder to take care of myself—eat well, get enough sleep, maybe have 1 (or 4) fewer cups of coffee a day—they’re not necessarily a symptom of impending disease, merely one of being alive.
The other thing this bout of sickness suggested was even subtler, but it prompted a deep re-envisioning of my relationship with my body, one both I’m grateful for and left puzzled by. (Yes, I fully admit to having watched several episodes of Russian Doll in bed, so there’s that.)
While I was convalescing I chanced upon an interview with Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, the author of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and All Can Thrive. It’s an evocative title, and without even listening I knew which flower I had been: The sensitive, fragile, susceptible one. Hearing the “orchid children” described with such clinical dispassionateness was strangely comforting. What if my nature wasn’t my fault—or even a fault at all—but the logical and lawful result of my genetics, my upbringing, the stories I heard told about myself and even about my forebears, my parents and grandparents?
This suggested that I was merely hard-wired towards a certain self-image. In other words, it was a predisposition, and one without a positive or negative value.
I spent the first few hours in bed following well-trod paths of anxiety. Will this infection last for months? Do I have to give up coffee? (No to both, I hope.) But try as I might, I could see that the usual responses—worry and frustration—were no longer serving me, and that they never had. I had spent so much of my life here, wondering when it was all going to fall apart, when some illness—or false move, or poorly chosen word—would knock me over, exposing me, bringing everything crashing down on my head.
But if the Sick/Well model no longer worked for me, how could I be “okay” in one moment and “not okay” in the next?
This called to mind the internal watcher I call the Voice, that silent judge observing everything I do, commenting and correcting and often grimacing in distaste. In plainspeak you might simply call it my ego, the part of my consciousness that tells me who I think I am.
Very early in my life, the Voice had insisted that it—the part of me so attuned to my anxiety and fear—should be put in charge, must be put in charge. After all, it was only for my own protection.
In the process, I had separated myself in two. There was what I understood to be the “real” me—the Voice—assessing and judging my actions, and then there was my facade, the part of me actually carrying out those actions, a representation of me somehow separate from myself: Here’s the image of Seth writing an essay; here’s the image of Seth sick in bed. But it’s not really Seth.
Try as I might to push the “sick” image of myself away, to shout That’s not really me!, I found that I could no longer exile any part of myself—not even my aging and unreliable body—and this invited a reintegration as subtle as it was profound. This was uncomfortable, even frightening, but it was also very ordinary. It was simply what was happening.
It invited a deeper acceptance of my physical frailty. Oddly, this in turn invited an unexpected sense of my strength. This illness would be in charge as long as it needed to. I would heed its reminder to support my body, breaking out the neti pot and steeping bitter herbs. Someday—perhaps sooner than I might like—sickness would come and take me away to some other realm, one only imagined in my darkest dreams. But that moment was not here just yet.
Sickness is a seam, a threshold. Like all such edges, it allows us to see around a corner, deeper into the shadows, or through a wall we had once imagined to be impenetrable.
I was still here; I was still me. And in some quiet and altogether new way, I felt more here than I ever had. I could see that I was not in this bed to be punished by my life, but to be made whole by it.