Learning my body’s language

When did you learn to pay attention to your body? To listen to it carefully, interact with it gently, tend to its needs with the care you’d offer any other creature you love?

I’m working on this in my life. I occasionally comment to my therapist that it’s been easier for me to do this because I don’t really have a choice. If I don’t pay attention to my body, I end up sick. Like, sicker than my baseline sick. But she works with many other clients whose bodies shout, and she tells me that no, plenty of folks don’t choose to listen to their bodies and end up ever sicker because of it.

What is it about our culture that tells us we can’t trust our bodies? Who in your life has told you your body was not trustworthy, that it was to be ignored? I mean, “No pain, no gain,” right?

But one of the things I’m discovering in my journey with chronic illness is that my body is a great communicator. And when I listen to what it tells me, my life is a whole lot more enjoyable. So—slowly, slowly—I am learning to do just that.

Translating my body’s language is an ongoing process. I’ve learned to pay attention and notice when my body’s talking: when I’m not hungry even though I haven’t eaten in 6 hours, when my memory is failing, when my hand shakes as I’m raising a glass to my lips. Those are some of the ways my body tells me it needs help. But like a flustered babysitter trying to figure out what a pre-verbal child needs, I don’t always know the appropriate response. So, for now, I try different things: drink water, take deep breaths, have a 20 minute nap. In time I’ll learn the language better.

This whole listening-to-my-body thing has caused me some trouble. I’ve had to part ways with some alternative healthcare practitioners because they insisted that there was only one way to healing. I just don’t believe that. If someone tells me that the only way to feel better is to do exactly what they say, I’m suspicious. If they ignore me when I tell them my what body is saying, I leave. I’ve spent enough of my life suppressing my body’s needs. I’m done with that, and I’m done with people who tell me to keep it up.

I’ve also learned to look for traditional Western doctors who listen to what I know about my body and take that into consideration alongside my test results. That can be hard to find. (I’m not blaming them; the set-up of our medical system doesn’t encourage this type of attention.) I can’t tell you what a support it is to have a doctor who has this gift.

I wish I had learned to listen to my body sooner. For years I noticed symptoms but blamed them on minor things, things within my control. I’m just stressed, I just haven’t gotten enough sleep, I just need to exercise. And I can’t help but be a bit sad that I missed out on so many un-repeatable experiences because I was sicker than I had to be. I kept pushing my body when it was crying out for help. I was scared, and confused, and like most of us I’d been told that my body’s needs could be conquered with enough willpower and hard work. And yes, willpower and hard work got me through, but I could have lived my life more fully if I’d treated my body as an asset, not an enemy.

I lost out on a lot, but I can’t change that. What I can do is take better care of my body going forward–by paying attention and learning its language and responding with love. I’ll miss out on some things because my body needs rest, of course. That’s a very real thing, and not easy to accept some days. But the activities and celebrations I do choose to engage in, I’ll get to be really present for.

So go ahead and talk, body. I’m listening.

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