Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

10 Things I Didn’t Know Before I Got Sick

Becoming chronically ill has been quite an education.

I thought I was done with my education. After all, I made it all the way to a law degree. Then in May of 2001, I got sick and didn't recover. Little did I know I had a lot of learnin' to do!

1. Doctors can't always fix you. I thought if I got sick, all I had to do was go to the doctor, maybe get a blood test, and then I'd be given something to fix me right up. After all, that's what appeared to happen when I initially got sick in May, 2001. I went to a doctor. She gave me antibiotics even though she thought it was a viral infection, so I thought I had all my bases covered—if it was viral, it would go away on its own; if it was bacterial, the antibiotics would knock it down. Was I naïve! Almost eleven years later, and I'm still sick.

2. Clean is better than neat. My house isn't neat. But it's relatively clean. The limitations imposed by my illness have put me to this choice because I can't manage both. I can have neat or I can have clean. I've chosen clean. So, if I wipe down a refrigerator shelf, I feel good about it, even though I know it will look just as cluttered when I'm done. When I do laundry, if I've managed to get the sheets and some detergent into the washer, I consider it a job well done even if the sheets emerge from the dryer only to be casually shoved onto a shelf (clean but not neat!) until I need them.

3. Fulfillment need not be tied to a job title. When I was forced to trade the classroom for the bedroom, I continued to think of myself as a law professor long after it was clear that this was no longer in the cards for me. It was only when I let go of that label, and the multifaceted identity that went along with it, that I was able to find fulfillment by living day-to-day, doing what's possible and enjoying what I can, without the need to call myself something important sounding.

4. The body is the most wondrous instrument in the world but it's also incredibly fragile. When I saw people on television stranded in the heat and humidity on the cement freeway overpasses in New Orleans after the levees broke, I thought, "I would not survive in that situation." When I see pictures of Sudanese refugees walking days on end to find food and water, I think, "They would have had to leave me behind." It's sobering.

5. It's possible to wake up feeling as if you never went to bed even if you sleep 9-10 hours straight. Before I got sick, after a long night's sleep, I felt refreshed the next day. Isn't that the function of sleep? Naïve again!

6. No particular food need be assigned to a particular meal. Lunch for breakfast? Fine. Breakfast for dinner? Even better.

7. A bad back can be cured by lying down most of the day. Before I got sick, I was plagued by back trouble. Sometimes I'd have to miss work for a couple of weeks and then have to double schedule my classes to make them up. Now my back is my best feature! This may not be true for everyone with back problems, but chronic illness fixed my bad back.

8. Plaster ceilings are abstract works of art. It's amazing what the eyes can see in white plaster. From years of lying in bed and studying the ceiling, I've seen many a masterpiece (as well a few pornographic works).

9. Freedom from the alarm clock is underrated. I bought the darned thing. Now, once again, I own it. It doesn't own me.

10. Cosmically, there's no difference between weekdays and weekends, or between regular days and holidays. It's just sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset. Treasure and enjoy.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also like "The Challenges of Living with Invisible Pain or Illness."

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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