Learning the Art of Getting Well

by David Spero

Overcoming chronic illness often requires us to slow down and save some energy for healing. In this society, most of us are moving way beyond our healthy speed, as illustrated in this story from Cajun psychologist Wayne Sotile.

Mrs. Boudreau hears an emergency announcement on the radio. There's a crazy man driving the wrong way on the freeway. She immediately calls her husband's car phone. "Boudreau," she says, "if you're on the freeway, you got to get off. The radio says there's a crazy man driving the wrong way." "Call 'em back," yells Boudreau. "Tell 'em there ain't just one. There's hundreds of 'em!"

Mr. Boudreau was only a little bit over the line. For many of us, modern life feels like a dog track, where we live like greyhounds chasing mechanical rabbits, (such as money, happiness, or doing good), while simultaneously being stuck with cattle prods, (like fear of poverty, or low self-esteem,) from behind. The race runs through our waking hours and often invades sleep. We fear the ever-rising tide of responsibilities will overwhelm us if we slack off, even momentarily, or that we will miss some vital opportunity. Meanwhile, the pain builds in our organs and muscles, the healing systems start to wear down, and the next thing you know, the doctor is recommending a triple bypass.

When we get sick, it's better to take the opportunity to stop and listen to our bodies. It won't be easy, but we need to put our bodies first for a while. We may have to figure ways to cut expenses; we may have to ask for help; we may have to change our view of ourselves, from worker bee to something more balanced. If we judge ourselves by how much we get done, slowing down can be hard on our self-esteem. Sometimes, though, our bodies need some rest, and other people are usually okay with that. We need to learn that we can be valued and loved for who we are, not just what we do.

Setting priorities

It's not always other people's needs and wants that make us crazy. Just as often, our own desires for material possessions, recognition, power, or personal growth cause us to overwork and drive our bodies like beasts of burden. We don't just burn our candles at both ends; we vaporize them with a blowtorch!

We have to learn to set priorities. Some things are really crucial, more important than health, even, but a lot of things we treat as necessities are really optional, and we can conserve energy for ourselves by letting them go. Is Better Homes and Gardens coming over for a photo shoot today? Is royalty coming to visit? If not, maybe cleaning behind the refrigerator can wait. Do we have to go to the next town to buy from a particular hardware store or bakery? Do we need to go to that meeting we know will be a waste of time? Do we really need another car or a bigger home?

The answer is usually "No." If we do cut back, we often find that seemingly uncontrollable health problems can become stepping stones to more comfortable, better lives. If we refuse to give in, and insist on keeping up an unlivable pace, we can't complain if our illness hits us again, harder.

David Spero is author of "The Art of Getting Well: A Five-Step Plan for Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness".

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